DVD Review: Get On Up

get-on-upOn stage, in front of a mike, James Brown was a frenzy: a wailing, weeping, sweating cyclone of sexual energy and raw talent. He was a visceral and uneducated genius and, without doubt, “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”

If you’ve seen the old and not-so-old footage, you know about the passion, the moves, the sheer athleticism of this utterly original phenomenon. If you haven’t, no worries: Chadwick Boseman has captured the soul of The Godfather of Soul in each of the many concert numbers in “Get On Up.” The voice is Brown’s from original recordings, but the channeling is all Boseman and it is brilliant.

As a bio-pic, the movie’s flawed by the jumpy flashbacks. But the production numbers are so good, so hot, you’ll be seduced and, thus, inclined to be forgiving. In fairness, the conversations and confrontations between concert scenes provide a convincing portrait of an untrusting perfectionist, a selfish loner, a man who knew and intuited and invented only one thing: funk. Few have accomplished as much.

After a rough childhood in South Carolina, where he was abandoned by both parents (Lennie James, Viola Davis), Brown spends time in jail for stealing a suit of clothes. He makes the acquaintance of fellow inmate Bobby Byrd, who is a singer. The two assemble a gospel group, the Famous Flames. In 1954, at a roadhouse, Brown meets Little Richard and is so impressed with his delivery that his own presentation morphs from gospel to R&B in an outlandish, full-process pompadour.

Throughout his rise to fame we witness Brown’s mistreatment of his musicians and wives. He’s a parentless paranoid. He loses his band, he loses his women and he never looks back because he is the James Brown — ordained by God and wearing the mantle (sometimes literally) of greatness.

Directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”), the movie is blessedly strong on production numbers and irritatingly inept with the flashbacks. We never did see what happened at the 1968 concert for the troops in Vietnam. Brown occasionally speaks directly to the camera, a gimmick you see in “House of Cards” and “Jersey Boys.” The idea is to sketch out the man, but the result is jarring and the narrative element of the movie suffers because of it. And the opening scene is vulgar and off-putting.

Though somewhat bungled in the telling, “Get On Up” gets it right in the singing.

Stephen Fay

Stephen Fay

Managing Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Fay, managing editor of The Ellsworth American since 1996, is a third-generation Californian. Starting out as a news reporter in 1974, he has been an editor since 1976, working in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont before settling in Ellsworth with his wife and two daughters. [email protected]

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