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Get On Up •••1/2

Get_On_Up_posterStarring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenplay: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 138 minutes
Release Date: August 1, 2014

Brown: Single, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Transformed Hero)

Brown: Single, P-PP Emotional, Ant (Redeemed Self Villain)


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Scott, it’s time to get on up and review the James Brown biopic.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

May the funk be with us. Let’s recap.

Get On Up tells the story of the great James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) in a non-sequential set of vignettes starting out in the 1970s and flashing back and forth between Brown’s childhood and his emergence as one of the most diverse and unique musical talents of the 20th century.

Brown grows up in a shack in Georgia in the 1930s. His father is abusive both to him and his mother and she eventually leaves James behind. This is an event that would scar James Brown for life. His father realizes he can’t take care of the boy or himself and enlists in the army during World War II, leaving James in the care of an aunt who runs a brothel. Here, young James learns to attract soldiers with song and dance. He is also exposed to gospel music at a local church.

As a young man James meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who leads a gospel group. Bobby recognizes James’ talent and invites him into the group. Soon they are known as the Famous Flames and are picked up by a record label. Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) becomes James’ manager and convinces James to become the point man for group, diminishing the role of the other Flames. The group walks out on him, but Bobby Byrd remains loyal to James. We witness the rising fame and fortune of James Brown, but also volatile periods involving tax evasion and odd brushes with the law.

Scott, one of the things we look for in the hero’s journey is transformation. And nobody transforms more than James Brown. He starts out with literally nothing but a pair of shoes he stole from a corpse and rises to be a great star. He is mentored by some unlikely people as he grows.

In prison, when it looked like he was doomed to a life of crime, he meets Bobby Byrd who helps to get him paroled and on the track of gospel music. Later, he meets a pre-fame Little Richard who advises him to know the devil when he sees him and to take the deal he offers. This advice bears fruit when James is given the deal to become a single star and leave the Flames behind. And finally, his business manager and close friend Ben Bart guides James in the ways of the special world of rock and roll stardom.

And this is where James exceeds his tutors. James turns the tables and becomes a disrupter, shattering the traditional methods of promotion and goes directly to the people. This ability to work outside the system makes James not just a star, but a very rich man.

Get On Up is an illuminating look at the turbulent yet triumphant life of singer James Brown. The movie pays homage to the uniqueness of every facet of James’ life, from his singular personality to his penchant for deviating from the musical norms of his day. James Brown was truly one-of-a-kind, a man who revolutionized music in strange yet brilliant ways. Get On Up does a nice job of showing the many seismic shifts in James’ life, some very painful, each helping unearth his many gifts.

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown is simply superb here, demonstrating remarkable vocal mannerisms and range, not to mention some seriously slick dance moves. With his stellar performances in last year’s 42 and this year’s Draft Day, Boseman has emerged as one of the most versatile young talents in the movie industry. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Boseman garner an Oscar nomination for Best Actor here.

There are some villains for James to overcome along the way as well. His father is a strong influence on him as a boy and also a very abusive man. This abusive nature is passed from father to son as we see later in James life.

While the record producers are depicted as men who are trying to help James, they are really out to help themselves. James realizes this early on and makes plans to extricate himself from the grip of the record companies so that he can create the kind of music he want to make.

Greg, you mention that our hero undergoes a significant transformation, but I’m not so sure. It seems to me that throughout most of his life, James is just a more professionally successful version of his father. He has trouble with relationships and physically abuses at least one of his wives. He has run-ins with the law and is a pure narcissist. We do get a glimpse of some change at the very end when James finally reaches out to Bobby Byrd. Perhaps in his old age he has finally softened and now recognizes the social world beyond himself.

As for the villains, I agree with you that James has plenty of oppositional forces to overcome, including the disadvantaged environment in which he was raised and the racist society that handcuffs him (sometimes literally). James has plenty of inner demons to conquer, all of them nudging him toward self-destruction. His success is a testimony to his immense talent, which pulls him through the maze of the adversity that he faces.

Get On Up is not just a biopic but a legendary rags to riches story. James Brown was an American original whose disruptive approach to music and the music industry had far reaching impacts on musicians and society alike. Boseman’s depiction of Brown is spot on. He channels Browns mannerisms, dance moves, and vocal stylings which adds to our immersion into the story. I give Get On Up 4 out of 5 Reels.

James Brown was a man who was constantly transforming himself. His style and music changed with the decades. However, he was self-destructive and narcissistic. These qualities threatened to destroy him at every turn. Still, he overcame these personality flaws and grew as a man. I give James Brown 4 out of 5 Heroes.

James Brown was probably his own worst enemy. Time after time he created situations that brought him to the edge of disaster. His personality flaws and obsessive nature often pushed away the very people he needed to help him succeed. Otherwise, there were very few true opposition figures in the film. We didn’t see much of the racial forces that were present in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and beyond. The oppositional forces that were presented were usually “old white men” who posed no real threat to James and were out to help him. Without strong villains, James’ struggle is lost to the audience. I give James and his weak opposition just 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Get On Up is an enjoyable and informative movie that portrays the making of a true legend in the music industry. The film meanders at times, but despite an occasional lapse in focus, I recommend Get On Up for all fans of music and for movie fans who will appreciate the vast talents of actor Chadwick Boseman. I’m happy to award 3 Reels out of 5 to Get On Up.

The hero story follows a pretty classic pattern and reveals to us a powerful underdog story. James Brown had so much to overcome that it’s a miracle that he found ways for his funkworthiness to prevail. Certainly his talent, his mentors, and his stratospheric self-confidence helped pave the way. I’m willing to give James Brown a rating of 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The villainous people and constraining forces that impeded James Brown were numerous but not always fleshed out to a satisfactory degree. We do see in vivid and heart-wrenching detail the atrocious conditions in which he was raised, but the people in his life who stood in his way are portrayed somewhat stereotypically. I’ll give the villains a rating of 3 out of 5.

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