Get on Up

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

The film opens in 1993 with James Brown walking through a darkened hallway as an audience chants his name. He hears the voices of people he knew throughout his life. The film then cuts to 1988 in Augusta, Georgia; James learns that his private bathroom in a strip mall he owns was used without his consent. As he confronts and then forgives the trespasser, he accidentally fires a shotgun, attracting the police.

During the 1960s, James and his band decide to travel to Vietnam to show support to the black troops, where they put on a well-received show. In 1939, James is raised in the woods by his parents (Susie and Joe Brown), whose marriage is fraught with financial struggles and physical abuse. James performs in a singing group, The Famous Flames, formed by Bobby Byrd, whose family sponsored his release from prison, a penalty he paid for stealing a suit. James lives with the Byrd family and becomes lead singer of Bobby’s group. In 1964, manager Ben Bart convinces them to let The Rolling Stones close The T.A.M.I. Show instead of The Flames. The Flames upstage the Stones, and, exiting the stage, James tells the Stones, “Welcome to America”. In James’ childhood, Susie leaves Joe, and Joe threatens her with a gun and keeps James. Joe continues to abuse James until Joe joins the army. James is left living with and working for his Aunt Honey, who runs a brothel. At her home, he attends church and enjoys the choir.

At the age of 17, James steals a suit, is arrested, and receives a five-to-thirteen-year prison sentence. In prison, James sees a group of singers performing. His enthusiastic reaction incites a riot wherein both he and one of the singers, Bobby Byrd, are injured. Bobby invites James into the Byrd household. Years later, James joins Bobby’s gospel group and they put on a show at a club as The Famous Flames, following a performance by Little Richard. Another flashback from James’s childhood shows him and other black boys forced into a battle royal boxing match while a band plays. Inspired by the funky band, James wins the match.

In the 1950s, James and Bobby meet an agent from King Records, with whom The Flames record their first single, “Please, Please, Please”, on the Federal Records label in 1956. King Records executive Syd Nathan initially mocks the song but appreciates James’s vocals. Ben Bart becomes James’ manager, calling him the true voice of the group. The records are labelled as “James Brown and His Famous Flames”, leading all the members except Bobby to quit. James and Bobby form a new band with Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, Nafloyd Scott, and Baby Roy.The Famous Flames singing group is also re-formed, replacing the members that quit. The Flames perform at the Apollo Theater to an excited audience. After the show, Bobby tells James that a lady claiming to be his mother is there. As a young child James had seen Susie with a soldier, to whom she claimed she didn’t know James. Aunt Honey consoled James, saying that his mother was a fool and James would someday be rich.

James has a child, Teddy, with his first wife Velma. He later divorces her and marries Dee-Dee. On one occasion, the couple hosts a Christmas event. Afterwards, James hits Dee-Dee for wearing a revealing outfit. In an attempt to reach out to the black community, James records the song “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968) with a group of children. James convinces the Boston Garden’ manager to not cancel a performance following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.. Several people try to get on stage; security guards intercede until James controls the audience.

Over time, James manages the band poorly, and they all quit. Ben dies of a heart attack. Bobby muses about a career as a lead singer, leading to a heated argument with Brown, who tells Bobby that, although Bobby’s wife Vicki Anderson (who was a featured singer in Brown’s Revue) could be a major solo performer, Bobby could not. Angry and upset, Bobby fires back at Brown, and after Brown makes some cruel statements, finally leaves him for good. Backtracking several years, to an incident at the Apollo, Brown’s mother Susie appears backstage during a Flames concert and expresses her love for James despite her reluctance to be a mother. After she leaves, Bobby comes back in, sees James having a breakdown, and heeds his request to take care of Susie. In 1973, James learns Teddy has been killed in a car accident. Immediately before the incident at the strip mall, James smokes a joint laced with angel dust. The police chase James and arrest him.

In 1993, James meets Bobby for the first time since Teddy’s funeral to give him tickets to his show. James walks onto the stage through a darkened hall. He sees visions of people from his life chanting his name. His performance of “Try Me (I Need You)” moves Bobby and his wife Vicki to tears, and the audience cheers.


Well, it looks as if another music based film is on the docket. My apologies to those that are getting wary of these, but I think it is time we all Get on Up (see what I did there?) A film that was released late last summer and overshadowed by the flick that was released the same day, Guardians of the Galaxy. It still did respectable business, but should you take the time to watch it?

What is this about?

This powerhouse biopic traces the legendary James Brown’s rocky road from humble origins to superstardom as the Godfather of Soul. The film also reveals the demons — drugs, violence and near-bankruptcy — that haunted Brown on his rise to fame.

What did I like?

Got that soul. There are certain figures in history that have been impersonated and caricatured so much that it hard to tell when someone is doing a good job acting as them. Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Michael Jackson, George W. Bush, and James Brown are a few of these people. With that in mind, I have to say Chadwick Boseman knocks it out of the park! He looks the part when in make up, brought real emotion to the role, and nailed the voice so perfectly that there were times when you couldn’t understand what he was saying. I hope he brings this type of A game acting when he becomes Black Panther. I do have one grip about Boseman, though. He seems to be getting typecast in this major African-American biopics. First 42 and now this.

Music. What would a movie about the Godfather of Soul be without the music. If you’re knowledgeable about James Brown’s catalog, then you won’t be disappointed. All the big hits are in here, except for I don’t recall hearing “Superbad”. Not only are they in here, but they are presented in a respectful way, not just a performance shoved in because they needed to play the song. Boseman and company really were getting into it, as well. What is that term some use? Ah yes, they were “feeling the funk.”

Say it with a slap. Domestic violence is no laughing matter, but I couldn’t help but chuckle at the one piece of spousal abuse that was portrayed. As Brown and his wife are outside giving a Christmas party, he notices a man checking her out. Later, they come inside and behind a wall, so the audience can’t see, he slaps her literally across the room. It is the kind of thing like you would see in a cartoon. This is anything but a die-hard serious film, as Boseman is constantly breaking the 4th wall to speak to audience after every section of his life, so it is easy to laugh at how this was portrayed, rather than dwelling on the actual slap. That is for another film.

What didn’t I like?

Continuity. I’ve been reading some reviews of this film and it seems that most people aren’t a fan of jumping around in the timeline. I guess I’ve gotten so used to it from watching Arrow where, all of a sudden, we get a flashback. That being said, it doesn’t excuse the lack of continuity. For example, there is a scene where the band is mad about not getting paid and they walk out. In the very next scene, they are back and things seem just fine. No doubt there was some sort of reconciliation, but how did it happen? Things like this occur numerous times in the picture!

Cliffnotes. Like other biopics, facts about Brown’s life have been altered to make a “more interesting movie.” I understand and (reluctantly) accept this, but I have to point out how this film is basically a cliffnotes version of Brown’s life. We don’t get to really know about his domestic abuse, save for that one scene which turned out to be comedic (I doubt it was meant to be, though), his musicianship, his activism, and drug abuse, not to mention his relationship with friends and family. All of this stuff is in the film, but some is blink and you’ll miss it, such as the drugs. Something like the activism was brought up just to get a song in and mention Martin Luther King.

Gladiator kids. I hate to bring up race, but I feel I have to with this. I did not know that in the 40s little African-American boys were blindfolded and forced to fight each other in a gladiator style match which was just short of “Mandingo fights” (you may remember those from Django Unchained). I won’t go off on some diatribe about this, but I have two points to make about this. First, there is a dark history in this country, and world for that matter. The fact that this was a practice this late in history says something about society at the time. It also says something about the society that came up with the idea. Second, this is not a heavy film, so I was perplexed as to why this scene was included, even if it does turn Dixieland into funk.

Get on Up is fitting tribute to James Brown. This biopic doesn’t dilute his legacy or make him out to be something he isn’t. However, there are certain aspects of his life that it overlooks as if this were an Afterschool special. Depending on what you thought you were getting into when you start watching this will determine if that is a positive or negative. Nelsan Ellis shows that Lafayette (True Blood) was just the start for him, as he is moving on up. Speaking of which, impressive performances, both musically and from an acting standpoint, as well as a nice sense of direction make this a film that should be on your must-see list. I very highly recommend it!

4 out of 5 stars


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