Why I Couldn’t Get Down With “Get On Up”

The new biopic, focusing on the entire life of the “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown leaps over too many pivotal moments in his life to have any meaning. Instead we’re left with a whitewashed version of events that add up to very little in the end.

Chadwick Boseman delivers in the film biopic of James Brown's life. Sadly the script doesn't match his performance.

Chadwick Boseman delivers in the film biopic of James Brown’s life. Sadly the script doesn’t match his performance.

What’s with the films of the summer of 2014? I mean we are now left with a hodgepodge of films left in the cannon that feel like either burn offs of comic books and sequels that never should have been made in the first place or sentimental journeys that leave a lot to be desired. Unfortunately “Get on Up” the new biopic directed by “The Help’sTate Taylor falls into the latter category. When making a motion picture biography of one of rock music’s greatest pioneers, who clearly lived his entire life on a teetering edge, for better or for worse, one must consider how much of their life to showcase for the audience to digest. As I watched “Get On Up” with this audience, I was surprised how the audience reacted to the more unsavory aspects of Brown’s life. It was as if they all didn’t know his life was as tortured and difficult on stage as it was behind the scenes.

James Brown was clearly a tortured soul, too bad the new biopic on his life "Get On Up" failed to dissect that part of his life accurately.

James Brown was clearly a tortured soul, too bad the new biopic on his life “Get On Up” failed to dissect that part of his life accurately.

I found myself increasingly feeling both uncomfortable and oddly perplexed as to what I was witnessing as I watched Brown’s life unfolding before my eyes. I knew he led a volatile life that continuously relied on spousal abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and prison time. But save for a few nuggets, all of that illicit behavior was masked over as the biopic tended to focus on Brown’s hard scrabble upbringing and upward mobility. Started with being raised by two derelict parents in the Georgia backwoods (yes he was literally raised in a shack in the forest) to eventually being shipped off to the city and being raised in a bordello, to eventually getting lucky and in what the movie portrays as a pivotal moment when Brown meets his eventual longtime right-hand man Bobby Byrd (as played by the scene stealing in the most subtle way possible, Nelsan Ellis).

James Brown (as played by Chadwick Boseman) becomes the Godfather of Funk in "Get On Up."James Brown (as played by Chadwick Boseman) becomes the Godfather of Funk in "Get On Up."

James Brown (as played by Chadwick Boseman) becomes the Godfather of Funk in “Get On Up.”James Brown (as played by Chadwick Boseman) becomes the Godfather of Funk in “Get On Up.”

As Brown becomes a star, he starts a family, tours and takes advantage of his touring band, and he takes stock of who he is as a black star in the music world that bridged the genres of rock, soul and funk. There are prime examples that the film exemplifies where you can see his star wattage. And the film’s star Chadwick Boseman inhabits the role of Brown seamlessly, in fact I feel he is better here than he was in last year’s biopic of Jackie Robinson42.” The cadence in Boseman’s voice matches Brown’s real life scraggly voice perfectly and although you can clearly tell that Boseman is lip synching to Brown’s real life stage and studio recordings, I found myself not caring because it was the story that mattered most.

But that’s where the biggest problem of “Get On Up” lies…the manic storytelling never allows the viewer, only which I can assume doesn’t know too much of the inner details of James Brown’s life, to fully encapsulate the hardships and pain and struggles that Brown really went through in his life. It is this roller coaster life that we barely scratch the surface of. Long stretches of Brown’s life are glossed over. I know that a movie of more than two and a half hour length you can only cover so much ground, but Brown certainly deserved more.

There was a scene in which Brown and his bandmates takes over the stage after Little Richard of all people performs with his own group and I was reminded how little of the relationship we get of Brown and Richard’s. It treated more like a flash and dash and it clearly didn’t mean anything to the overall storyline other than they were both gonna make it big one day. And as I saw Little Richard (played by Brandon Smith) ham it up, I was reminded how he once got a made for television movie on his own life while James Brown gets the big screen treatment. Life can be so unfair.

You will see a whole new side of Viola Davis in "Get On Up" sadly you won't see her in the movie that much.

You will see a whole new side of Viola Davis in “Get On Up” sadly you won’t see her in the movie that much.

That wasn’t the only problem I had with the generalization of Brown’s tumultuous life. All of the women he had in his life from his near-do-well mother, to the Madame who raised him, to his first two wives, we really don’t get to the meat of their relationships until it’s over, and then we never find out what happens to them. At least they got a storyline, as Brown’s third and final wife who apparently served as a consultant and was on the red carpet for the film’s premiere doesn’t get a mention at all. Two out of the top three pivotal scenes in the movie involve the women in his life. The best of which is when as an adult a reunion with his mother with goes sour when he realizes she hasn’t changed. Viola Davis, playing Susie Brown, has never been stronger here. And the second best scene is when Brown gets jealous and physically abuses second wife Dee Brown (as played by Jill Scott) for dressing too seductively during the holidays. This combined with another scene where his bandmates walk out on him after realizing they’re no longer a group after the record company wants to only sign Brown. These scenes realistically showcase how Brown’s life was truly affected by his hard scrabble life.

Bottom Line

I was really looking forward to Get On Up in fact I made it my mission to see it as soon as it came out. Boy was I disappointed. It had none of the fun and sass of Tate Taylor’s previous movie “The Help” but all of the stereotypes and lapses in character development. Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis and Viola Davis are the only three reasons to see this film. Even then you won’t miss it until it comes out on VOD. The movie whitewashes the most important and damming moments in Brown’s life, which clearly make up who he is as a performer. Alas, if you want to be impressed with his life story you’d be hard pressed to see it on display here.

“Life Itself” is a Truly Engaging Movie That Discusses Life All By Itself

Although it’s clichéd to admit, this new documentary of film critic’s Roger Ebert’s life really makes you think about your own life and what you’ve managed to accomplish. In comparison to Ebert, what you’ve done is still probably not enough.

 

Roger Ebert's career and life is in full view in the new documentary Life Itself.

Roger Ebert’s career and life is in full view in the new documentary Life Itself.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting with the new documentary currently in limited release called “Life Itself” which focuses not only on the life and career of film critic Roger Ebert best known as one half of the ground breaking film critic duo of “Siskel & Ebert” and from his noteworthy Pulitzer Prize winning career in his writing of books and reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Documentaries can be a tough sell to any movie going audience, especially if you are not interested in the subject matter. But with this fascinating journey through time this film allows the viewer to travel through the pivotal moments that shaped who Roger Ebert became. And it allows us to imagine ourselves as the same kind of film aficionado that his writing and appearances on our screens inspired us all to want to become. It is these little morsels that shape who Roger Ebert became as a film reviewer that they viewers will find most intriguing and memorable. For instance “Life Itself” shares that Ebert didn’t start off wanting to be a film critic, he was a news junkie, journalist at his soul who loved to write and when the opportunity to become a film critic arises at the Sun-Times he jumps at it and as they say, a star is born.

Through archival clips and photos we see a past and a present. Director Steve James who Ebert once championed for his noteworthy 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams managed to forge a beautiful friendship with the celebrated film critic and originally wanted showcase how Ebert was handling his life after being diagnosed a mouth cancer that left him without his lower jaw and unable to eat or drink on his own. After being admitted to the hospital, cameras were supposed to follow Ebert and his supportive wife Chaz as they navigated his rehabilitation and eventual recovery. Except Ebert never recovered and eventually succumbed to his disease. Instead we are treated to family, friends, colleagues and fans reminiscing about how wonderful a career and life that Ebert truly had.

I found this unfortunate turn of events oddly uplifting as it gently reminds us how precious life can be and how lucky each and every one of us is to have had the opportunity to take advantage of experiencing life’s ultimate moments. And we are lucky, thanks to Chaz who married Ebert later in their adult lives, to have all of this documentation through archival videos and photographs to be willing to share their lives as a couple with the audience.

Before Ebert leaves this world, we do get a glimpse into what he and Chaz mean to each other through various up close and intimate experiences, like the challenges of coming home from the hospital or the decision to end one’s life, it is all played out in front of cameras. Not for any shock or debatable value, but this is clearly to show that the Ebert’s were living their lives as anyone would as if they weren’t famous.

You'll want to become a better writer and appreciate movies like Roger Ebert after watching Life Itself.

You’ll want to become a better writer and appreciate movies like Roger Ebert after watching Life Itself.

Bottom Line

I loved this movie, see it now in theatres while you can or on VOD when it becomes available. This film was distributed from CNN Films so one can only hope the movie will be shown soon enough on the news cable station. What is most memorable about the film is the wide variety of nuggets you get by watching it. From the archival clips of Ebert’s most critically praised movies such as Bonnie & Clyde and Raging Bull to the interview subjects that shared the most fascinating aspects of Ebert’s life you may not have even known about him. Such as Chaz admitting for the first time on camera that she met Ebert in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene admitting that Siskel didn’t want to share his own impending death with Ebert despite their roller coaster friendship/ working relationship.

The film does give you an up close and personal journey with a couple who happen to be battling a rare and deadly disease. And it doesn’t get too graphically close into what Ebert actually experienced in his final few years, which if it did I know would turn off a lot of people from wanting to go see this movie. (Great narration provided by voice actor Stephen Stanton provides a great anecdote one after another in a similar cadence to Ebert’s own voice). What it does share is life’s intimate moments with viewers who may never have known that Ebert had a fulfilling life right until the very the end of his own life and that is something we should all be grateful to witness. If you love movies, i know you will love this movie.