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USA 2014
Directed by
Tate Taylor
139 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Get On Up

Synopsis: Born in South Carolina during the Great Depression, a little boy from a dirt poor family grew up to become a legendary singer who influenced countless musicians. James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) is often known “The Godfather of Soul”, “The Godfather of Funk”, and “Mr Dynamite”. This is his story.

Tate Taylor (helmer of the Deep South 1960s drama, The Help), teams up with producers Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger to bring James Brown's story to the screen. Like many Southerners, Brown was influenced by gospel and the film traces this early influence, along with blues and jazz, which he turned into such classic hits as “This Is A Man’s World” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” – nearly 100 charting songs over a 30-year period.  

Get On Up is marked by an electrifying performance from Chadwick Boseman. The actor nails the Brown persona, from his early years as part of The Famous Flames through to his iconic solo years with the coiffed hair, elaborate costumes, and unforgettable stage act. Though a younger lad plays Brown as a child, Boseman has to portray him from about 18 to 63, no mean feat. While the songs are lip-synched to the original Brown recordings (and wonderfully executed), the moves all belong to Boseman who apparently rehearsed five hours a day to perfect the singer’s trademark fancy footwork. An extra 80 musicians were included in the film to perform the music backing the voice. The changing feel of the various eras is handled superbly and the distinctive Brown costumes are the real deal.

The supporting cast feature a few well-known faces: Viola Davis plays Brown’s neglectful Mama, while Octavia Spencer is his Aunt Honey, who also happens to be the madam of a brothel where the boy lives to escape a violent father. Dan Akroyd plays Brown’s manager, Ben Bart, whilst the not so well known Nelsan Ellis is the important character of Bobby Byrd, the young gospel singer with whom James started The Famous Flames.

The biopic genre is a well-worn one and often directors look for an angle to make a difference. This probably accounts for the fact that the movie is non-linear and hops around in its time frame. So, we open with Brown walking onstage in 1993 to the chanting of a crowd, then cut to 1983 in Atlanta Georgia, where he runs foul of the police. Then suddenly it is 1968 when Brown goes to Vietnam to entertain the troops and then we go to 1939. There are spell of chronological orthodoxy but the back-and-forth alternation generally characterizes the film and some may find in it a bone of contention.

Get On Up is a delight from go to whoa, often moving and a worthy tribute to one of the most influential musicians of his era. I would never called myself a huge James Brown fan – I know few of his songs other than the huge hits, and yet Boseman’s charismatic energy and the intense vitality of this film held me in its grip for the entirety of its rather long runtime.




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