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Review: How ‘Get On Up’ Criticizes James Brown’s Legacy

Review: How 'Get On Up' Criticizes James Brown's Legacy

Many artist biopics celebrate their subjects. “Get On Up” doesn’t make it that simple.

In the best scene from Tate Taylor’s biopic of James Brown with Chadwick Boseman as the Godfather of Soul, Brown suddenly realizes he’s surrounded by white people. During a song-and-dance bit on live television, the movie assumes Brown’s perspective as everything slows to a crawl, while the pasty faces around him merge into a collage of awkward dance moves and empty smiles. But despite his disgust, Brown doesn’t stop the performance or register a complaint with his manager (Dan Akroyd). Nothing matters more than the camera watching his every move.

Outside of that moment and a sequence later on when the singer struggles through a show in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, “Get On Up” mainly deals with race by implication. But it’s this fleeting snapshot that digs far deeper than anything else in the movie to explore Brown’s unique legacy: Rather than weaving activism or message-mongering into his public persona, Brown promoted his unique sound in terms of its exclusivity. He wanted it enjoyed on his terms. Though “Get On Up” never congeals into a satisfactory whole, its fragmentary portrait of the singer at the height of his fame — intercut with his troubled single-parent childhood — effectively shows his invasive power in popular culture. Brown brought his distinctive riff on R&B sounds to mainstream audiences on his own terms.

The movie testifies to that appeal almost exclusively through Boseman’s first-rate performance. While the narrative sags in parts and fails to generate an emotional hook on par with Brown’s rhythms, Boseman himself maintains a dynamic physicality that recognizes the singer’s ceaseless energy — as well as the hubris driving it. When a baffled record label executive complains about the lack of lyrics outside of the title word in “Please, Please, Please,” he’s told, “It’s not about the lyrics.” Indeed. It’s about Brown, snaking across the room, hollering into the microphone with a passion that bordered on insanity. Though certainly a warts-and-wall portrait, “Get On Up” struggles to get a grasp on its subject. But for the sheer force of movement and attitude Boseman brings to the character, Brown comes to life in unflattering detail as a fully self-involved musical genius.

As the singer’s ego expands with every onstage performance, he alienates his closest colleagues, including his longtime right-hand man Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and band-members frustrated by their low pay rates. Taylor captures these scenes with a matter-of-fact approach that registers as little more than rudimentary melodrama. Some of the more extreme dark patches in Brown’s career, including a 1988 arrest, come and go so quickly that they seem like little more than CliffsNotes to the singer’s life.

It’s the actual performances where the full paradox of Brown’s output comes into view: He was a tremendous talent whose every move amounted to a publicity campaign. Lost in the fog of his performative abilities, he could never comprehend the concept of moderation, hence the rampant drug use and womanizing that ultimately sullied his career. Brown’s music, heavy with feeling and delectable beats, has a maniacal quality to it — as if the singer were unleashing his id on the audience. “Get On Up” pays homage to that skill. By doing so, it acknowledges the dangerous personality behind the myth. But is that all there is to it?

The closing performance, featuring the eponymous song, blends real footage of the singer with the fictional version to make one last statement about the constructed nature of Brown’s appeal. Despite that sophisticated insight into his career, the movie struggles to offer a narrative on par with its portraiture. “Don’t tell me when, where or how I can be funky,” Brown announces before doing a show for soldiers in Vietnam. “Get On Up” foregrounds that assertion in every scene, and ultimately becomes trapped by it. We get that Brown was a complicated egomaniac who made great music. But even as “Get On Up” magnifies that point, it creates the lingering sense that the singer has overtaken the stage one last time. It’s still his show.

Grade: B-

“Get On Up” opens nationwide today. Browse other critics’ reactions here.

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While I enjoyed seeing a filmic presentation of the life and times of James Brown, I found myself not very emotionally involved while watching “Get On Up.”

The film’s fragmentation—its juxaposition of Brown’s life in nonlinear sequences—prevented any real engage in Brown’s life. The effect was to render Brown’s life and accomplishments schematic and superficial. It’s as if the film was so concerned about not being a “Hollywood biopic” that it forget to weave together a narrative whole to bring the audience into the life of one of the most dynamic performers of 20th century American popular music.

Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of James Brown is tour-de-force exploration of Brown’s psychology, looking at the emotional damage and bottled up rage of an abandoned child. This will be the second black icon that Boseman has portrayed as an actor; he is in command of his craft as an actor. That Boseman captured some of Brown’s pyrotechnic dancing and footwork is a tribute to his skill as a performer. It’ll be interesting to see if he receives an Oscar nomination.

However, the film never truly explored James Brown’s impact on black and white America, politically and culturally. It barely looked at his politics, which were outside of most of his black audience during the civil rights era. “Get On Up” failed to credit him as a unique cultural leader during the 1960s and 1970s during the black awakening period of that era.

“Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” not only announces transition from R&B/Soul into Funk, but also serves to underscore that peaceful nonviolent revolution of King’s SCLC was being challenged by the oncoming rhetoric of Black Power. Yet the socio-political dynamics of that era’s music is and Brown’s role are missing.

For example, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) appears out nowhere as Brown records it in a studio with a group of young children. Did he record it to prop up his “black credentials” as he met presidents and toured in Vietnam, or was he affected, as many were, by the Black Power ethos of that era? You merely see Brown wearing an Afro and some African accented clothing, as well as some members of his band. Yes, he cools a riot, but why were black people, especially black youths, willing to listen to him?

The film could have explored in greater detail his musical process—his genius of stripping away melody and returning to the African root of percussive instrumentation (i.e., rhythm) but only had briefly doing in an airport presser.

The film certainly failed to place him in the context of the period’s black music scene of that era. Why was his music different from Motown or Stax? How did his music evolved into funk? Where were the implications for him being the most sampled musician in the development of hip-hop? Supposedly Nigeria’s Fela, the originator of Afro-beat, experienced a James Brown performance and became inspired to emulate Brown in his homeland.

The film’s lack of depth may have something to do with the fact that it was written by two Englishmen, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth. The fragmentary nature of the film’s narrative may well have been a necessary patchwork to cover the fact that the two writers knew very little of the socio-political background that the Godfather of Soul was working in and influencing. There certainly was no exploration of R&B developing into Soul and morphing into Funk under Mr. Brown’s presence as Soul Brother No. 1. Even more surprising is that this lack of musical exploration was performed under the auspices of the film’s music producer, Mick Jagger.

This film, ironically, encapsulates one of Brown’s lesser known but very apt songs, “Talkin’ Loud But Sayin’ Nothin’”


"Rather than weaving activism or message-mongering into his public persona…" Er, "Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud"? "Soul Pride"? "I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself)"? "King Heroin" "Don’t Be A Dropout"?


I soooo enjoyed this movie 59 baby!!! gave me gooood memories!!! you were great!! the music dancing acting great!!! remembering plaing tag in the front yard, fish fries, bbq, Damn it I loved it!!!! we knew how to enjoy outdoors!!! bad times felt like great times### we didn’t know we wer struggling OK!##

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