Saturday, August 2, 2014
Get On Up 
Ebony (M. Allen) review
RollingStone (P. Travers) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review
Crosswalk.com (S. Ellingburg) review
Get On Up  (directed by Tate Taylor, screenplay by Jez / John Henry Butterworth story by Steven Baigelman and Jez / John Henry Butterworth), which seeks to tell the story of Legendary, One-of-a-Kind, Trail-Blazing, Seemingly Ever-Smiling (even if EVERYONE knew that he had a temper) Mad,Mad,Mad GENIUS African American singer/entertainer/businessman James Brown, who by acclamation carried the moniker "The Hardest Working Man in Show-Business" for an entire generation (and honestly, who could challenge that?), is a certainly a tall order.
Does the film measure up? I do believe that the two communities that would have the most credible say in the matter would be the African American community and the Pop Music community and the reviewers for both Ebony and Rolling Stone magazines try hard to not be scathing... both recognizing the challenge to ANY director / team of screenwriters to do justice to such a complex man, but ...
How does one tell the story of someone who was a perfectionist and a wife-beater, who spent time in jail for stupid drug and weapons charges, even as he was a truly PULLED-HIMSELF-UP-BY-THE-BOOTSTRAPS SELF-MADE MULTIMILLIONAIRE (with a 6th grade education) PATRIOT who HELPED KEPT THE PEACE IN BOSTON (while MUCH OF THE REST OF THE COUNTRY _BURNED_) AFTER THE ASSASSINATION OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR by KEEPING TO HIS SCHEDULE and HOLDING HIS SCHEDULED CONCERT IN BOSTON GARDEN THE NIGHT AFTER MLK's ASSASSINATION and having THE ENTIRE CROWD SING TOGETHER "Say it LOUD, I'm BLACK AND I'M PROUD." (This is a REMARKABLE STORY and is immortalized in several documentaries including The Night James Brown Saved Boston  [IMDb] [Amazon Instant Video] and the concert itself James Brown Live at Boston Garden  IMDb] [DVD-Amazon.com]).
Who can honestly forget his showmanship (and by all accounts _sincerity_) in singing the rambunctious "Living in America" in the Silvester Stallone film Rocky IV . (Yes, I know that there are 10,000 other examples I could give but I choose this one because James Brown born dirt poor in the heart of the Jim Crow South and abandoned as a child by both his parents could have been a veritable poster-child for Revolution (in Malcolm X's famous words "by any means necessary") but instead Brown chose to be a Patriot, flying out to Vietnam to play for the troops in the summer of 1968 and he supported both Nixon and Reagan in his time). A very, very complex man.
So how the heck to you put that complexity on screen? The film-makers _chose_ to make the film's chronology disjointed. The film flies backwards and forwards in time. At times, the film-makers have James Brown (played in the film by Chadwick Boseman) pull himself out of the scene and "break the fourth wall" to talk directly to viewers about one point or another.
The use of these devices can make for a jarring experience for viewers, but I think they were chosen intentionally to express the complexity and even contradiction in the man. To tell his story, one would perhaps have to go backwards and forwards in time and perhaps need him to explain himself directly to the audience to make sense of it all.
There's also a suggestion in the use of these techniques that the film-makers thought James Brown to be, at least in part, crazy. Yet, well ... the line between genius and madness can be thin. Still it's doubtful if he couldn't have achieved all that he achieved (he wasn't _just_ a singer / entertainer, he was also a businessman) if he was "simply nuts." And yet precisely his manic activity in so many directions caused him troubles (those stupid drug and weapons convictions and though he was never actually charged with tax evasion, he did have the IRS's attention...). But then he grew-up dirt poor in a situation where virtually absolutely nothing in his life was stable (again, both his parents abandoned him, and in the film he was largely raised by an aunt "Honey" who ran a brothel) so "he learned to survive..." (In the film mom is played by Viola Davis, dad by Lennie James, and auntie by Octavia Spencer).
But then, HOW does one survive growing out of such an environment and even become famous / thrive?
Well, the film clearly shows that James Brown did have the fortune of coming to have some very good friends including life-long band mate Bobby Byrd (played by Nelsan Ellis), manager Ben Bart (played magnificently if also certainly with some comic flair by Dan Aykroyd) and his (second) wife DeeDee Brown (played by Jill Scott). But the film also suggested these friendships were often one-sided -- These people (and others) did care for James Brown. But did / could James Brown really care for them? This question then becomes the heart of the movie. Yes, Brown became a success, but would the wounds from his childhood (above all THE TRUST ISSUES) eventually conspire to bring him down? Well, what would you think?
This is not a perfect movie, but it does try (in as much as one can in two hours) to present the life of a very complex, gifted and challenged man. Does it succeed? In my opinion, if you like music, and do have a heart, it's worth the price of admission.
Finally, though the film is rated PG-13, I find that rating absurd. Granted, the film is not necessarily a hard R. The language is generally clean, and the drug use / sexual situations are kept more or less off screen. But we do see him, from the back, having very, very _consensual_ sex as a young man "with a preacher's daughter...") AND THE GUY GREW UP IN "AUNTIE'S BROTHEL..." So I honestly don't understand the PG-13 rating. From a personal life standpoint, he certainly was no role model.
But he was (like most of us) more than just the sum of his failings and sins. When he sang, NO ONE could deny that he sounded "good, so good" and he "got us all" to feel good as well. ;-)
Despite his various (and perhaps multitude) of sins and failings, I always liked James Brown.
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