“I paid the cost to be the boss.”
The movie begins at a Brown low point, but travels back to an earlier, more hopeful time in the crooner’s career and life. We move from Brown’s crazed days in the 80s back to a self-certain and fierce moment in 1968.
He and his band are headed to Vietnam. As shots are fired at the aircraft around them James Brown is sure nothing will happen to them because he is James Brown. Introducing the magic in the rise of his star and the gumption with which he meets his opportunities.
Born into extreme dysfunction and abuse, Brown witnesses the beatings his mother receives at the hands of his father. Compared to his nearly mythical contribution to Soul, his childhood is sobering and heartbreaking.
Having to be raised alone by a father who struggles with violent tendencies because his mother abandons him, that child is burdened by darkness. As his child within, Brown never grows beyond that aching.
Joined by faithful loved ones and loyal business partners, “Get On Up” tells the see-sawing tales of his relationships with his best friend and back-up singer, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), his surrogate father figure and manager, Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) and his second wife, DeeDee Brown (Jill Scott).
In the beginning it may seem it will be another straight forward “What’s Love Got to Do With It”-type, R&B singer/dancer biopic. A movie that touches on the kind of racism of that era and the influence the Civil Rights’ Movement had on their music, an evolution of the artist alongside society.
The expectation is that something new and deeply human will be revealed, something that will cause a renaissance for the love of the artist, their contribution to social elevation and yes, for their product.
“Get On Up” doesn’t tell a tidy story from past to present. It opts for a fresh deliverance as if the story were laid on a loom. It weaves from present to past, to go further back and then just beyond until a picture is created, rather than simply a story told.
With direct camera address -- a breaking of the fourth wall -- the tale is invigorated and Boseman has a little fun to work with. It feels a little rock n’ roll.
Unfortunately, this format closes off the opportunity to explore the demons raised from having such a start. After Brown’s mother leaves, his father sends him to live in a brothel and Brown is raised by Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), a pimp.
Though we learn these things, a connection to how they affect his business sense or how he negotiates his personal relationships is not fully made. It may also have to do with the silliness and lightness of the film as it consciously down plays Brown’s own abusiveness and addictions.
This film seeks to portray an icon, but leaves his bones bare with the choice to touch those demons lightly, a disservice to the whole experience of soul. Sometimes it isn’t pretty. In this case it was downright grotesque, but the audience is only allowed to skim the surface.
Boseman gives a stellar performance. The acting is incredible, though the dancing only alludes to the drama in Brown’s true step. If judged by that, Boseman would be under-satisfactory as the leg wigglin’, foot slidin’, cape deflectin’ Godfather of Funk and Soul. Ugh, good gawd.
But Boseman’s timing cannot be dismissed. A rainbow of emotions, existing in a number of decades, reacting to an array of personal and cultural joys and turmoil, Boseman certainly has the strength to carry the grandeur and burden of being James Brown and the performances of his illustrious supporting cast.
For those who came up in the Funk and Soul era this will be a fun, but cushioned walk down memory lane. For younger generations, it is testament to why our favorite idols like Michael Jackson emulated him.
Get on up and see it. For the writing, acting, editing, music and dreamlike, sensory experience...see it.