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.
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’s” Tate 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.
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).
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 Robinson “42.” 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.
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.
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.