Feel (Kinda) Good

Get on Up isn't the James Brown biopic you've been waiting for

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown.
Chadwick Boseman as James Brown.

When a movie poster boldly claims Get on Up to be "the James Brown story," there's a responsibility to tell that story in a manner that lets you begin to understand what made James Brown tick.

That doesn't happen here. Yes, the tale stretches from his poor-as-dirt days, growing up in a dysfunctional backwoods family, and it goes right up to the period when the international star begins to lose his mind. But the film is constructed in a scattershot matter. It jumps around in time, visiting and revisiting different points in his life, without letting us comprehend what's going on in his head at any given time.

Chadwick Boseman, who hit gold embodying Jackie Robinson last year in 42, doesn't really look much like James Brown in any of his various hairstyles. But he's got both the moods and the moves of the man down. And he adds a tremendous excitement to the surroundings, both in line delivery and in songs.

But this should have been a film that dug deep into Brown's life, and pulled out moments that led to him becoming as successful and influential as history says he was. We learn that he made a lot of money, could pump up a crowd, and alienated the musicians in his band. But the script completely ignores the younger viewers that it should go out of its way to educate and inform. No one under 30 is going to realize that the man named Richard (Brandon Smith), who for a very brief period takes young James under his wing and offers him advice, is Little Richard, as beyond the performance of a song, he's never even introduced. And the scriptwriters' presentation of significant events right after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King is completely misconstrued here. King was killed on April 4, and Brown had a concert scheduled at the Boston Garden on April 5. The day was saved, and violence was avoided not, as the film purports, because Brown calmed down the crowd, but because Boston Mayor Kevin White got a local television station to broadcast the concert live, keeping people at home watching it on TV, rather than being out in the streets.

There are plenty of other less important, underdeveloped events tossed in that pad the film rather than propel the story. Despite a lengthy 138-minute running time, we get only a series of snapshots rather than a cohesive picture of the man's life. After watching the film, I still don't know the James Brown story. ♦

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