[Screen It]

"GET ON UP"
(2014) (Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A poor boy grows up into a hugely popular soul singer by perfecting both his music and handling the business side as well.
PLOT:
It's 1939 and James Brown (JORDAN SCOTT) is a young boy growing up in the woods near Barnwell, South Carolina with his mom, Susie (VIOLA DAVIS), and dad, Joe (LENNIE JAMES), neither of which were cut out to be parents. Eventually dropped off to live in Augusta, Georgia with his Aunt Honey (OCTAVIA SPENCER) who runs a bordello there, James grows up hawking hookers and whiskey for visiting soldiers, all while watching a charismatic preacher do his thing elsewhere on the pulpit.

Years later and serving time in prison for stealing a suit, James (CHADWICK BOSEMAN) meets gospel singer Bobby Byrd (NELSAN ELLIS) who is impressed enough with James' singing ability that he convinces his family to take in the teenager and his band to bring James into their fold. It's not long before the band takes up livelier, secular music and changes its name to The Famous Flames and soon draws the interest of record promoter Ben Bart (DAN AYKROYD).

James ends up marrying Velma (JACINTE BLANKENSHIP) and starts a family, although with his growing success and workaholic demeanor, he eventually leaves her for Deedee (JILL SCOTT) who becomes his second wife. And while Bobby sticks with James through thick and thin, the rest of their band develops issues when James becomes the main star and treats everyone else like hired hands, all as he starts taking over the business side of his career.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Having just seen the latest biopic regarding a famous musician/singer I can now say with certainty that I wasn't cut out to be a star in that profession. Granted, without the use of auto-tune, my voice wouldn't have gotten me far on "American Idol" or "The Gong Show" years before that, and the only instrument I ever played was the clarinet and that career spanned my school days during fifth and sixth grade.

Apparently just as pivotal, though, is that the fact that I led what I've always called a Beaver Cleaver childhood in the suburbs with a stable family unit and a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Sure, there were little traumas along the way, but nothing big enough to leave permanent scars or put the extra coals in the fire to drive me toward any sort of music related success, let alone stardom.

On the other hand, James Brown, like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and others of his era, did have a traumatic childhood that certainly affected his personality, behavior and work ethic. Naturally blessed with a good singing voice and being a quick study, he became a huge sensation in the music world and eventually became known as "the godfather of soul." Just as impressive, he was one of the first performers to take control of the business side of his profession, a rarity for African-American acts of his time.

All of that comes to light in "Get On Up," the latest Oscar bait, um, biopic about a famous singer to hit the big screen. Featuring an electrifying performance and recreation of the real man by Chadwick Boseman, good supporting work from Nelsan Ellis as his long-time friend and band-mate, and, of course, an array of great music and fun to behold stage and concert performances, the film is undeniably entertaining from a music perspective.

As a dramatic biopic, though, it's something of a frustrating experience that feels fractured and truncated thanks in part to the approach director Tate Taylor ("The Help") and/or screenwriters Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth have fashioned and presented the man's story from humble beginnings to worldwide fame. Granted, like any film of its ilk, there's far too much real-life detail to cram even into this pic's nearly 140 minute runtime, and thus an episodic nature was to be expected.

This time around, however, the film does a lot of non-linear jumping through time, an interesting tactic if pulled off with aplomb, but one that sort of ends up squandering the potential here. It starts by showing Brown (Boseman) in 1988 entering a building he owns, not quite in the right frame of mind, and interrogating a bunch of seminar-goers about which of them used his bathroom there, all while wielding a shotgun.

It then flashes back two decades earlier when the singer was doing a USO bit for American GIs in Vietnam, followed by another backward temporal jump, this time three decades worth to when he's a boy witnessing his mom (Viola Davis) and father (Lennie James) not having an idyllic relationship in the woods of South Carolina. The way back time machine then jumps forward to 1964 and we see James dealing with a record executive (Dan Aykroyd) and then backwards again to when he meets gospel singer Bobby Byrd (Ellis) who kick starts the troubled young man's life into the music biz.

The constant jumping around and back and forth through time doesn't ultimately do the film any favors as not enough time is spent in most of them or with most of the characters present (especially regarding his marriages to two wives played by Jacinte Blankenship and Jill Scott) to gain any good dramatic or emotional traction or viewer engagement. The exception are the many scenes between Boseman and Ellis and their characters' complicated and long-running friendship and business relationship, during which we get to see more of what made Brown tick.

All of that said, however, the terrific connecting element throughout is Boseman who not only near perfectly captures the man and legend (warts and all) but should finally nudge aside Eddie Murphy's hilarious "Saturday Night Live" impressions from decades ago as the most famous portrayal of the singer. Having already done a great job portraying a famous and culturally significant African-American figure (that being Jackie Robinson in "42"), Boseman slips so far into the character and portrayal that it doesn't take long before you forget you're watching an actor playing the part. It's a mesmerizing performance, and the musical numbers in which he appears are nothing short of a blast to watch, especially if you like Brown's music and command of the stage.

I just wish the drama had the same effect. Some of it's admittedly powerful and there are some interesting flights of fancy (although I could have done without Brown occasionally and randomly breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the viewer), but the overall storytelling feels as fragmented as the musical numbers are in connection with each other. It's not enough to derail the project, but it leaves what could have been a great flick as just a decent one. "Get On Up" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed July 23, 2014 / Posted August 1, 2014


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