Say It Loud….Thoughts on “Get On Up”

“God and Nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be.”   Marcus Garvey

"Get On Up" with Chadwick Boseman as James Brown and Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd.  Photo:  Universal Pictures

“Get On Up” with Chadwick Boseman and Nelsan Ellis.     Photo: Universal Pictures

Big hair.  Bold clothes.  Brash moves.  Loud music.  Everything about R&B legend James Brown said it loud.  His look, his music, and his moves made The Hardest Working Man in Show Business who he wanted to be—someone who controlled center stage and who commanded the center of attention.

In Get On Up, the Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment homage to James Brown, Chadwick Boseman commands the full screen like the legendary music-maker commanded the stage.  He has total control channeling Brown—wearing his moves like a fitted suit and mouthing his words in that raspy voice Brown owned.  It is as though the legend himself returned to relive his highs and lows from age 16 to 60 bringing all his bravado and music with him.

James Brown’s story is life as performance art.   In the early thirties, Brown lived as a motherless child in South Carolina before his father took the man-child to live with his aunt in her Georgia brothel.   His poverty and potential pushed him to flip his flaws and find a future in music.   Brown created his genius by mixing talent, hard work, hustle and the burdens of his haunting feelings.  With the insight of Bobby Byrd and the inspiration of Little Richard, Brown’s journey ignited.  His appearances flowed from church choir to chitlin circuit and concert halls to crossover pop charts and international fame.  Along the way, Brown carved fierce R&B rhythms with The Flames and JBs, and he redefined the music industry adding soul and funk to its repertoire.

Director Tate Taylor’s biopic is art imitating life.  With Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth’s screenplay, Taylor gives the audience syncopated beats and burdens of Brown’s life.   The relived life is cyclical.  Moments touch off memories. The audience scans Brown’s story through flips–back and forth–of experiences, events and emotions.  Brown was sometimes up, sometimes down, and always repetitive from his call-and-response punctuated music and magic moves to his prison to performance stage and back again life.  Ultimately, the film’s restless pacing offers those new to James Brown enough to grab and gain some insight into the complex, musical genius and for the nostalgic fans, Taylor gives us the real story we know so well.

With popular songs as the backbone, the strong cast further enhances the movie’s reality.  Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott and Lennie James are on screen long enough to make lasting impressions.  The confrontation between Davis, as Brown’s long-gone mother, and Boseman personifies the emotional power of strong performances. True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis subtly exemplifies “star time” by owning his role as Bobby Byrd and playing in perfect harmony to Boseman’s every move. Dan Aykroyd quietly contributes as Brown’s longtime booking agent and confirms that Brown even managed his managers.

Timing is everything.  James Brown knew that.  It took about seventeen years to make this biopic.  Producer Brian Grazer had the rights.  Then times changed.  James Brown died.  Legal wrangles ensued.  Grazer waited.  Time waited, too.  Time waited for Tate Taylor to make The Help with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.  Time waited for Nelsan Ellis to do True Blood.  Time waited for Chadwick Boseman to star as Jackie Robinson in 42.  Then Mick Jagger came on as co-producer.  Legal wrangles ended.  The time was right.  And Get On Up got the feeling right.