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Movie review: 'Get On Up' goes to show that there really is only one James Brown

Get On Up


There is, was, and always will be only one James Brown. That happens to be the draw of his new biopic, Get On Up (opening today), as well as its flaw.

"Get On Up."
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures, 2014. Used with permission.

Chadwick Boseman - who most recently portrayed another iconic figure in last year's Jackie Robinson biopic, 42 - gives a valiant effort in the role of the film's subject, James Brown. But dress him up, give him Brown's hair and gravelly voice, and he still doesn't quite encapsulate the spirit of the man known as Mr. Dynamite, the Godfather of Soul.

There have been countless biographical films made over the years and sometimes the actor captures the essence of its subject and sometimes he/she doesn't. Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, or Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray? Both performances are examples of the rarity of embodiment, not just impersonation. Boseman's James Brown is more of the latter, the on-screen equivalent to the performance of Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash: Both had the look and even some of the mannerisms down-pat, but there was just something missing.

Get On Up has more issues than just that, although that's a glaring one. Director Tate Taylor tells us the story of James Brown, from his poor, abusive beginnings through his rise to super-stardom and then his eventual, inevitable cooling off. He doesn't shy away from some of Brown's ugliness: Domestic abuse, his penchant for being a slick-talking a-hole and the fact that he was a shrewd businessman. But Taylor also doesn't linger in these areas. In fact, the narrative is all over the place, flashing back and forth through time without any real purpose other than to trying to infuse the film with some style of its own.

The result is a confusing mish-mash of scenes that add up to nothing new, nothing that we haven't seen before. Brown's life may have followed the trajectory of many other famous people - rise from nothing, enjoys fame, abuses fame, destroys personal life, eventual redemption - but it is a tale that we have seen way too many times. His closest friend and band mate, Bobby Byrd (Nelson Ellis, from HBO's True Blood) helps Brown along, but eventually gets burned, as all peripheral characters seem to do in movies such as this.

Adding to the cliches are occasional reminders of just how un-hip white people are and how white folk just don't "get" soul music. It may be true, but its exhausting to endure. Many key career milestones are skipped over as well, instead choosing to focus mostly on Brown's early days.

Luckily, despite all that goes wrong, there is the music. If nothing else, Get On Up is a celebration of James Brown, the Famous Flames and the era. It's nearly impossible not to get sucked up in the on-screen soul. The film's best scene has Brown instructing his band that every instrument - the guitar, the trumpet, the saxophone - is a drum. They all exist not to hit the right notes, but to create a "groove."

Get On Up never really finds its groove, but it will have you moving in your seat and tapping your toes, in wonderment of what was the real James Brown.

Genre: Biography, Drama, Music

Run Time: 2 hours 18 minutes, Rated PG-13

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Octavia Spencer

Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help, Pretty Ugly People)

Opens locally on Friday, July 25, 2014 (check for show times).

Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment.

How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time
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