Santa Cruz Good Times

Monday
Apr 20th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Feels Good

fm getonupChadwick Boseman kills as James Brown in spotty but fun ‘Get On Up’

It’s hard to get a movie biography right. If the subject is in show business, the problem becomes how to cherry-pick key moments from an entire life, let alone career highs and lows, then shoehorn them into an easily digestible two-hour-ish format while creating a story arc that makes sense, and an emotional thread that keeps viewers involved. The usual result is an all-too-predictable narrative journey from hungry youth to glitzy stardom to decline, where the characters onscreen never really come alive.

But James Brown blazes to life in the movie bio Get On Up, partly because of the filmmakers’ smart, unorthodox storytelling, but mostly thanks to an incendiary performance by Chadwick Boseman. No, Boseman doesn’t do his own singing (who would dare?); the soundtrack features mostly the recordings of Mr. Brown himself. But Boseman captures the volatility, on and offstage, of the entity we recognize as James Brown, the flamboyance, the fierce ambition, and the uncompromising determination to be treated with respect. (He also dances up a storm!)

His performance is perfect for the impressionistic approach of director Tate Taylor (his last film was The Help), and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth. Instead of laying out the usual dreary rise-and-fall scenario, the filmmakers open with a kaleidoscope of moments—an iconic James Brown marching down a tunnel to a stage, a druggy Brown entering a business he owns with a rifle during a seminar, young James in his prime, on a 1968 USO tour of Vietnam, cheering on his band as their army transport plane is practically shot out from under them.

Only in bits and pieces sandwiched between such big moments does the backstory of the impoverished little boy growing up in the rural backwoods of Augusta, Georgia, begin to emerge. We see him abandoned first by his runaway mother (Viola Davis) fleeing an abusive husband, then by his father, who leaves him at the local house of pleasure to be raised by the sympathetic madam (Octavia Spencer). We see an encounter with a revivalist preacher (Clyde Jones) that will influence his later performing style.

The gospel group, The Starlights, morph into grown-up James’ first back-up band, The Famous Flames. Women and children come and go. A demo record is cut (“Please, Please, Please”), and James brings funk to the masses. Dan Aykroyd contributes some nice bits as the unlikely “old Jew” of a manager, Ben Bart, who sticks with James through good times and bad. But the film’s main emotional hook involves James and longtime friend and bandmate, Bobby Byrd (well-played by Nelsan Ellis).

Here, they meet in a prison infirmary (teenage James is serving time for stealing a suit) after straight-arrow Bobby, one of the Starlights, is injured during a performance for the inmates. After hearing James sing, Bobby not only brings him into the group, but into the Byrd household, the only family James has ever known. Through changing fortunes, Bobby remains James’head cheerleader, official BS-detector, and conscience. He weathers all of James’ emotional firestorms except the one that finally drives him away, providing closure for the finale, when James sings a make-up song to him from the stage.

All of it plays out amid a revolving prism of James Brown stage entities (“Mr. Dynamite,” “The Hardest-Working Man In Show Business,” “The Godfather of Soul”) and the performances that go with them (not to mention the hairstyles, from extreme pompadour to modified Afro to the long, side-swept pageboy he affected in his later years). In one tasty moment, James gets some sound advice from the ‘Tutti-Frutti”-era Little Richard, played to fresh, flirty perfection by the scene-stealing Brandon Smith.

Now and then, James breaks out of a scene to speak directly to the movie audience, a stage-like device that helps keep all the balls of plot and incident spinning. Get On Up may be a bit too big and busy for its own good, but as a homage to a self-made American R&B original (it was co-produced by lifelong fan Mick Jagger), it delivers the goods.


GET ON UP *** (out of four) With Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, and Viola Davis. Written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth. Directed by Tate Taylor. A Universal release. Rated PG-13. 138 minutes.

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Smells Like Team Spirit

The organizers of TEDx Santa Cruz don’t just talk about this year’s theme, ‘radical collaboration’—they live it

 

Pluto Retrograde, Aries New Moon, Lyrid Meteor Showers

As the Lyrid meteors, radiating from the star Vega in the Harp constellation, begin showering heaven and earth with light, Pluto, planet of transformation (or die) turns stationary retrograde (Thursday, April 16), 15 degrees Capricorn. Retrogrades have purpose, allowing humanity time to review, reassess, research and reinvent while returning to previous situations. Retrogrades are times of inner activity, seeds sown in bio-dynamically prepared soil. Pluto retrograde is the most serious and resolute of retrogrades—a pure tincture, or, as in homeopathy, a “constitutional” touching the essences of all that matters. Pluto offers deep insight into confusion or puzzlement and areas where transformation is still incomplete. It’s valuable to have one’s astrology chart to follow what area of life the major planets— especially Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto—are influencing. These outer planets have long-term and lasting effects on our psyche, inner/outer life events, how people see us and how we see and process our world. Pluto, retrograde for five months (until Sept. 24) offers deep earthquakes of change, awakens humanity to the task of building (Capricorn) the new culture and civilization, flailing our inner world about, deepening us until we transform and do things differently. Pluto is an unrelenting teacher. New moon (29 Aries) is Saturday, April 18. With the personality-building keynote, “Let form again be sought.” Mars anchors the new creative fires of Aries into our world. The New Group of World Servers participates together in the new moon festival, while also preparing for the Taurus Wesak, Buddha Full Moon Festival (May 3). Join us everyone.

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of April 17

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Mighty Leaf

Radicchio from Dirty Girl Produce, wine etiquette fail, and a treat from Gayle’s

 

What would you like to see a TED talk about?

Hydrogen-gas cars that are coming this summer. Scott Oliver, Santa Cruz, Professor

 

37th Parallel Wines

I visited the Capitola Mall recently to check out the newly launched Third Fridays Walking Art Tour, and was surprised to find an impressive assortment of artwork from local artists.

 

New Bohemian Brewery

New Santa Cruz brewery focuses on European style lagers