Who was James Brown and how did he influence the music of today? ‘Get on Up’ purports to answer this, by showcasing us who he was before his rise to stardom and the affect stardom had on him as a man and entertainer. The idea here is that his music was so ahead of its time that all the music that has come since, in some way has been influenced by him.
If we use this as the hypothesis for this film, then was this accomplished? “Get on Up” is told through a series of flashbacks, side tracks and vignettes that are so haphazardly drawn, that at points we have no idea how they are connected. How are all the characters related? Who is related to whom and how do they figure into the story?
It starts with James Brown, Chadwick Boseman, in the later part of his career depicting his erratic and often violent behavior by shooting off a shotgun, to scenes from his youth in Augusta Georgia. From here his humble and fractured family is portrayed. His father was a mean abusive man, and his mother, while well intentioned, is a victim who in the end leaves him in the hands of his father where survival means living through cruel and unpredictable behavior.
Even when he lands in the hands of Aunt Honey, Octavia Spencer, a well- meaning madam who uses him to drum up business, things are not easy. This is a confusing world where children are used as punching bags (literally at times) to make a quick buck and for the amusement of others (mostly white people). It is not till he is arrested for stealing a suit and ends up in jail that he meets his friend Bobby Byrd, Nelsan Ellis that things start to go his way.
Of all the relationships in the movie, the one between Brown and Byrd is the most enduring. This is not just due to him and Byrd establishing the Famous Flames, but to Byrd’s belief in Brown that he could make something of himself. He believed in the music they were creating as not just something which would be heard by one generation and then forgotten, but that it would indeed endure. At the same time he seemed to know that his place was not in the spotlight and accepted it.
As Brown’s star rose though, so did his ego. The result is he is often shown throwing his weight around, all in the name of James Brown. Yes, he was innovative, especially in terms of dance, yet one can argue that his contention that if sounds good and feels good it must be music, is debatable.
That being said we are still left with the question did the movie effectively show that James Brown influenced all music that came after him? This was a bio-pic not a documentary, and therefore what it did do was lay out where he came from, what influenced his style (gospel) and how he rose to stardom. However, did it lay out how his music influenced other artists? No. If it had, it would have had scenes showcasing musicians and singers who followed him.
James Brown was unique, and his story is one which is truly American, especially with regards to how African American’s have been treated and the evolution of that. The relationship between Brown and his manager, Ben Bart, Dan Aykroyd is one which symbolizes this. Aside from Byrd, he is the only other person who Brown had a deep and trusting tie.
It is interesting to note that much like Brown’s own chaotic life, the relationships he had women are depicted in a similar tone. The viewer may be confused as to whom his wife is, (it is never noted) and who his girlfriend is. In one scene there is a woman in the audience, who he is eyeing, yet it is not clear till many scenes later, she is the one he is in bed with. She is not called by name and so we are left wondering if that is the same person, and how they got together. There are characters who are so underdeveloped that when tragedy strikes, the impact is muted.
Chadwick Boseman brought a great deal of warmth and life into his portrayal of James Brown. His heat and energy are at once vibrant and distinct. He moves, spins, dances and breathes James Brown. Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, is charming and always a pleasure to watch. There is a subtlety behind his eyes, which shows more than even the scripted words.
One element which really brings this film up a notch is the element of humor. Brown’s life was not easy, so being able to find moments of hilarity within it all, not only eases the mood, but lets the audience have a respite from the darker themes.
The focus of this film though is so split that (is it a bio pic or a documentary) that it ends up being neither. This slows down the pace of the film. There are only so many times one can hear him yell that he is James Brown, before you start yawning and wishing it were over. We get it, we know you are James Brown, however, as an viewer we want to learn more. We want transcend beyond the superficial. That is what James Brown did after all.