Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Get On Up

Get On Up
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens, NY

A few years ago, my friend Paul was in town for a few days and I showed him around Brooklyn. At one point, we walked into a record store. Paul's a huge music fan. His bag is techno music and though he's not a professional, he's DJ'ed in the past. This was one of my favorite record shops (sadly, it no longer exists), and I knew I wanted to show it off to him.

By and by I spot a CD that I wanted to pick up. I think it was the latest from Tool. I was all set to buy it when I also notice a greatest hits collection from James Brown, and it had no less than fifty songs on two discs. I really wanted this too, but I only had enough for one. I had a quick consultation with Paul, and while I kinda hoped he'd suggest I buy the Tool disc, he admitted that the James Brown collection was awful tough to resist. After some more thought, I agreed and went with that, and I've never regretted it.

I remember when Brown died. By coincidence, it was around the time that the film version of Dreamgirls came out, and I had him on my mind when I went to see that. Strangely, my father never played a great deal of the Godfather's music when I was growing up, at least not that I remember. I'm sure he must have dug Brown's music, but he tended to favor the doo-wop vocal groups more - The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Miracles, etc. In fact, now that I think about it, I probably heard more funk from my sister's disco records. I certainly didn't hear him on the local Top 40 stations I grew up with, nor did I see him on MTV, so I must've picked up on him from somewhere. Rocky IV, perhaps?

Wherever I first heard the music of Soul Brother #1, I never knew a great deal about his past, except in bits and pieces. I knew he had problems with drugs. I knew he was born into poverty. Probably not much more than that. So naturally, when I heard that a film about Brown was in the works, I expected it to be illuminating, to some degree.

I was less than enthused, however, when I discovered the director of The Help was gonna make it. I am normally not the type to play the race card when it comes to who should direct what film, but I really felt like a movie about the Hardest Working Man in Show Business should go to a black director. Unfair? Maybe, but it's how I felt. While Tate Taylor didn't do a terrible job with Get On Up, he just struck me as the safe choice: "Oh, he already did a popular movie about black people; let's give him this one too!"

And Get On Up feels like a safe movie. For all of its non-linear storytelling, a format which Taylor more or less abandons halfway in, it, like many biopics, it tries to tell a lot in a little bit of time, relatively speaking. Funny thing is, having Brown break the fourth wall the way he did made me think this could've been a really gonzo, off-the-wall interpretation of Mr. Excitement's life in a similar fashion to The Wolf of Wall Street, another movie about a charismatic yet potentially volatile individual whose life was often a circus. In fact, I remember thinking that thought while watching Get On Up. But that movie, like Wolf, would've been a hard R and not a PG-13.

You know what movie was also a hard R? What's Love Got to Do With It, the Ike and Tina Turner movie from the early 90s. Like Mr. Please Please Please, Ike Turner was a pioneering black musician from the south who made great music and delivered a funky live show, but also battled inner demons... but that's where the comparisons end. Look at Get On Up and then look at What's Love - also directed by a white guy, Brian Gibson - and you'll see a galaxy of difference. The latter film has a tighter focus, centered as it is on the tumultuous relationship between Ike and Tina, and it is absolutely unflinching in its depiction of the violence he inflicted upon her. I wonder whether such a movie could be made today, especially from a studio.

What saves Get On Up, however, is Chadwick Boseman. He kills it. He has the voice, he has the swagger, and most importantly, he has the dance moves, and that couldn't have been easy to learn. He did it, though, and he did it as good as the genuine article. I think a Best Actor Oscar nomination is a possibility, and if he gets one, hopefully Nelsan Ellis will pick one up, too. As long-suffering pal Bobby Byrd, he provided a wonderful contrast. I just wish these performances were in service of a more daring movie.

(By the way, I did end up getting that Tool CD also, later on.)


  1. I don't know why we can't have everything we want. Be able to buy more than one CD at a time. Have a movie that challenges and excites us, that works on all cylinders. Is that too much to ask?

  2. I believe it was one of this movie's producers who famously said something about not always getting what you want. But such is life.

  3. I'm going to see "Get On Up" because I love James Brown and can't not see it. On the other hand, I can't imagine a movie about James Brown not being "R". That's Hollywood product and marketing, not true art.

  4. I agree, and in writing this, it occurred tp me that 'Ray' and 'Walk the Line' were also PG13, two more Hollywood biopics about talented but troubled musicians. I'm wondering now how many biopics about famous musicians within the past decade were rated R. I know 'Jersey Boys' was, but that, I suspect, was because Clint has the power to make his films his way.


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