GET ON UP: The James Brown Story Is Bold, Powerful, & On Time

The long awaited James Brown bio-pic is now in theaters. Blah blah blah…. Every film review starts out like that lets just skip to the good stuff. Is it good or not?

YES…. !!! The time really whizzes by and you really don’t want this thing to end. It’s pure funk, it’s pure rock, and this thing really delivers just like James himself, (played by Chadwick Boseman). There’s a lot of ground to cover because we have to cover six decades of musical history in just a couple of hours. Fear not because it can be done.Mick Jagger produced it and there is a lot of detail here in the life of the Godfather of Soul. This was a labor of love. Dan Aykroyd is in here and plays James’ manager Ben Bart .  It’s hard to keep Aykroyd away from the R&B sound because well he was a Blues Brother after all, ( he also put money in for the House of Blues restaurant  you might recall). No worries here on this flim project because the James Brown estate is in fine hands with this powerful cinematic tribute.



I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that I know all about the classic history. Let the other journalists do that and they might even tell you the most expected and trite bits of dialogue. I’m going to spin my review from the heart. Are you cool with that? James is where he belongs, on the big screen and the tale is bold, epic and powerful.

If you think you got problems go see, “Get On Up”. There’s a good chance that your life isn’t even close to the kind of traumatic upbringing that James Brown endured. This kid went through an ordeal and it doesn’t even seem possible at times that this could be a true story. But like any good true story you won’t be able to take your eyes off of it. The story takes place in what appears to be disjointed segments of the past, the early years and the present. But they all come together at the end to knit together one heck of a history.

We see Brown’s early impoverished years in the backwoods shack in Taccoa, Georgia. One of the first glimpses we see of the young performer shows him taking the shoes off a dead hanging man. It’s grim, it’s brutal but this is what we see and you can’t help but want to turn away. The family life is bizarre and brutal. His parents are portrayed as rough and ignorant and shows some hints of abuse. After Brown’s mother leaves the family young James is shuffled off to live in what looks like a whore house while dad takes a gig in the army. From there the story moves along swiftly in a Dicken’s Oliver Twist kind of way.

James is about seven when he gets exposed to the rough and tumble nightlife characters of servicemen, working women and R&B which he takes to immediately. He seeks it out at a nearby church and we see a reverend with long curly black hair and a flamboyant white suit. This preacher has the dance moves and the voice to make him a stand out character and James takes notice. Dressed from head to toe in a tailor made white suit and has a bundle of dollar bills pinned onto his chest like a corsage. He is a dazzling white vision of the future.

From there he gets arrested for stealing a three piece suit and gets slapped with a five year jail sentence. While in jail he is surrounded by more music and makes new friends. Once out of jail he gets a group started and they hit the scene and rub elbows with Little Richard.

By the time James Brown hits the big time and lands on television he has his act down. The cinematography is lush and dense with color. There is a lot of attention paid here on the detail of set design, clothing and what people were actually like back then. Its star time and James wows the crowd with his signature mic stand theatrics, ( later copied by so many including Prince) leg splits, dance moves, and trademark howl.  The crowd is loving him and showing approval and as an audience we are ready for that after seeing so much grim realism. There are great recreations here of the band and the musical arrangements are tight, funky, and very entertaining. Brown was famous for fining his band $20 bucks for every mistake they made. A similar type of punishment was later used by the original Temptations in the Motown scene.

Nothing is spared in exposing the roughness of the people and that includes racial tones and attitudes. I find this particularly hard to watch and I am more sensitive to it as I get older. One scene stands out where young black boys are forced to fight eachother for the amusement of drunken country club members. Boys ages 7 – 10 are blindfolded with one arm tied behind their backs while the free arm is laced up with a boxing glove. The idea here is that they all beat each other senseless until there is one left standing. I’m sure this really happened and there is some historical reference to it somewhere but man is it hard to watch.

This isn’t all grim and hard luck there are some good times in here too. There are moments in here that are unintentionally funny like when Brown and his band are invited to play in Viet Nam. The plane they are riding in is under fire and an engine is hit. It is nothing short of a miracle that nobody was killed. The whole time I am watching this I keep asking myself, “Is this for real? Did this really happen?”. Bombs explode around the plane in mid air and these special effects are really powerful.

Artistically we are swept through the story in a series of chapters. There are graphic titles artfully done in the 1960’s poster font in screaming orange and lemon yellow fonts that read, “Mister Dynamite”, and “The Minister Of New New Super Heavy Funk”. We are taken away to the 1970’s where James Brown and his band are playing in Paris and the stage set up revved up and explosive. The dancers in the back are placed on high level stage blocks and the horn section is kicked up for a new sound. The camera picks up close shots of the manic dance moves, the mic stand antics and we get to see the hard work that goes into the show. We get more than up close and personal – at times we almost get TOO close. Even at the worst of moments you still do not want the film to end.

This is the fourth film for Tate Taylor. Other films include, “Pretty Ugly People” and “The Help”.  Chadwick Boseman is electric and delivers another outstanding portrayal of a iconic legend. You may remember last year  Boseman played Jackie Robinson in the hit flim, “42”.




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