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.

Why I’m Both Anticipating & Dredding the New Television Season That’s Full of Diversity

This week was the annual week that every year the inner TV geek is always eagerly anticipating with both hope and anxiety. That’s right it’s the annual Up-Front presentations where the four big broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) and smaller networks on both cable and broadcast (The CW, TNT, TBS, USA et. al.) all make their upcoming fall schedule announcements and their big pitches on their new shows for advertisers and in essence the viewing public.

What fascinated me about this year’s crop of new shows was not the umpteenth spinoff of either CSI or NCIS on CBS (or in this case this year we get both, uh yeah?!?) But it was the surprising amount of diversity being offered in this year’s new crop of shows that has me both hopeful and nervous with anticipation.

ABC's new midseason series "Fresh Off the Boat" is the first series to focus on an Asian American family since "All-American Girl" starred comedian Margaret Cho.

ABC’s new midseason series “Fresh Off the Boat” is the first series to focus on an Asian American family since “All-American Girl” starred comedian Margaret Cho.

Looking Back, It Wasn’t Too Long Ago…

Forget the cheese-tastic titles such as Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat. It’s the substance of the show of what’s behind those titles that both excites me and worries me. They have a lot to look up to. Could it have been already thirty years ago this year that The Cosby Show lit up our screens and introduced us to the way a whole new family managed to live their lives with humor and dignity? But Cosby and the Huxtables weren’t the first. In the seventies we got a wide variety of families of a multicultural and economic backgrounds. There was Sanford and SonGood Times and The Jeffersons, just to name a few. All of these shows including the Cosby Show are still being shown in repeats on cable which means to me they still have a long and successful following to this day.

So the question remains what happened since the Cosby Show went off the air in 1992? Why hasn’t there been a truly breakthrough successful sitcom to star a person of color? Sure there’s been multiple attempts and decent runs of shows featuring comedians Margaret Cho, Damon Wayons, Bernie Mac and George Lopez. Not to mention a variety of smaller shows that managed to survive on niche networks like UPN and the WB back in the day. One would probably need a sociologist to give detailed research into why sitcoms and dramas for that matter with people of color as leads have failed to truly catch fire these past two decades and counting.

Comedian Cristela Alonzo will star in her own eponymous sitcom on ABC this fall.

Comedian Cristela Alonzo will star in her own eponymous sitcom on ABC this fall.

What happened? We’re all of the shows attempted just not interesting or funny or popular with a broad spectrum of the American viewing audience? Or did real life just get in the way which forced us all to reexamine our lives and just not watch shows that were not about topics or people that were similar to us? In the early part of this century, I remember the television critics taking over various minority groups that collectively previously bemoaned why there wasn’t a more diversity in the broadcast network’s fall shows. Now the networks are taking the initiative to diversify their own programming without any prompting. It has helped that shows like Scandal and The Mindy Project are taking off both commercially and creatively with female leads of color.

Viola Davis stars in the upcoming drama "How to Get Away with Murder" on ABC.

Viola Davis stars in the upcoming drama “How to Get Away with Murder” on ABC.

Dramas Are a Step Ahead of the Curve

And it’s not just comedies that are taking shape of a more multicultural world. Sure for the past few decades we’ve seen a ton of diverse workplace dramas from L.A. Law to ER showcase a more accurate portrayal of a diverse workforce in America, but very few of the most successful dramas were actually driven by a person of color. That was until Scandal really broke out in its second season for ABC. Now the trend for network television is to feature a number of high profile women in lead roles that are driving storylines like the new drama How to Get Away with Murder featuring two time Oscar® nominee Viola Davis which will air right after Scandal on Thursday nights. Coincidentally Fox has new drama featuring Davis’s Oscar® winning costar in The Help, Octavia Spencer in Red Band Society. CW gets on board with Jane the Virgin starring newcomer Christina Rodriguez about a Latina women who gets accidentally artificially inseminated. I guess there really is a story for everyone. Don’t forget there’s also Fox’s midseason Empire starring Oscar® nominees Terrance Howard and Taraji P. Henson and CBS has Stalker in its bullpen starring Maggie Q.

"Grey's Anatomy" & "Scandal" creator Shonda Rhimes will have a third drama on ABC's Thursday night lineup. This one stars another African American actress, Viola Davis takes the lead in "How to Get Away with Murder."

“Grey’s Anatomy” & “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes will have a third drama on ABC’s Thursday night lineup. This one stars another African American actress, Viola Davis takes the lead in “How to Get Away with Murder.”

What I’m Hopeful For This Year

Maybe dramas just are able to easier reflect a broader spectrum of this country’s cultures than comedies can. Perhaps executives became so afraid of becoming too politically incorrect by exploiting our cultural biases and stereotypes when it comes to creating laughs for comedies. Nevertheless I am thankful that networks are putting out shows like Cristela starring Latina comedian Cristela Alzono and Selfie starring actor John Cho. I hope all of these shows succeed, but I fully realize that this is probably not going to happen. Now that the broadcast networks are taking a chance on more people of color in starring roles, I fully believe that there’s nowhere to go but up. I’m filled with anxiety because I fear that all of these shows either tank or actually be successful by following too many stereotypes. I sincerely hope that these shows are filled with plenty of laughs or a lot of high drama in which the actor’s cultural identities aren’t completely put aside but hopefully they can actually enhance the shows and storylines they happen to be in. Hey, when watching television one can live in a fantasy world, why can’t we dream while were there?