Dir. Tate Taylor. USA. 2014.

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It was inevitable that the life of Funkmeister General James Brown, nicknamed ‘The Godfather of Soul’ would be given the biopic treatment and it is also inevitable that this adaptation of his life would be compared to the screen depictions of Ray (the film of Ray Charles life) and Walk the Line (Johnny Cash). Ray, was awful though there are great similarities in the backgrounds, abuse, neglect, poverty and climbs through the humble beginnings to stardom told in intermittent flashback.  The difference here is that Get On Up has a far superior central performance, is considerably less ham fisted in the emotional punches it pulls and makes the artists talent shine through the work, as opposed to predicting the life of someone who was a self destructive, womanising, pain. There was just as much brutal vanity in James Brown as artist (his probate was a mess at the time of his death) but the film in comparison uses the flash back less as explanations of inner demons.

The change of status of fellow travellers and band members ‘The Famous Flames’ to James Brown and his Famous Flames’ is where we see that James has some sense of the ball breaker that it was for the guys that loved and supported him – but James from the onset is portrayed as being a deeply individualistically talented man with heart and humour – in spite of his flaws.  The drama is an anti-plot structure, skipping in time (as did Ray) running from dirt poor backstory to concert footage with the kid that plays James Brown junior just divine evoking charm and sympathy. The scenes between Ray Charles and his mother in comparison are hokey and contrived to push the tough love message rather than simply depict the life and origins of musical impetus.
There is one particular striking scene where the young James is made – along with other black kids, to fight each other in a boxing ring, blind folded with one arm tied behind their back as entertainment for the white folks. The secularisation of the time is not heavily politicised but shown as just scenery for this boy’s fertile imagination and amazing wit. When falling to the ground after being punched, the young boy sees the musicians in the near rag time jazz band synergise into the sound of funk, the back ground as vital defiant response to circumstance as opposed to Ray Charles who in Ray sexed up Gospel whilst flirting with his woman.

James Brown did though go on to become a big civil rights champion and stopped riots in the wake of Martin Luther King’s death, which is given us in the film as is the hilarious involvement in Vietnam. The black entertainer giving soul and funk to whites balances out the injustices with the talent hanging superior to the preppy norms of the day. Studio One did the same for the middle class English back in the fifties in London filling the landscape with Jamaican/Ska hybrids. A couple unhappy to have spent good money to share a pool with ‘niggers’ find themselves funking out to the jamming provided by the band session practice in a hotel complex.

The concert footage is just simply divine and it is difficult to keep still whilst watching, the level of personal and professional investment in recreating these events is profound – the effect is bring to us what we would only see in black and white and from a viewer perspective. Aside from the central performance, the major strength to the film is this. From the T.A.M.I show in 1964 (where the Rolling Stones negotiate the closing act spot), to the Olympia Paris show – everything is exceptionally choreographed. 

This treatment has had the advantaged of a stellar talent behind it with a staggering collective CV. Mick Jagger is behind the production which has been in the fray for 10 years: we may be looking at an era of stars investing time and money into personal pet projects with Don Cheadle now seeing his Miles Davis production crowd financed. James Brown, for personal touch was an assistant producer. Brian Grazier, who has 8 Mile under his belt can boast this as a great ‘pop production’ in his canon. The dance, teeth, wigs and even trouser policy have all been given category A continuity treatment. The main lead, Chadwick Boseman is five inches taller than the great man himself but this biggie was offset by the use of flounced and not skinnies – the JB trouser of choice.  Twins Jordan/Jonarian Scott play JB the younger – the search for that piece for pitch perfection can’t have been easy. Dan Ackroyd is very good as Ben Bart, the balanced and clever friend and manager with Nelson Ellis as friend and fellow musician Bobby Byrd. A heavy tear jerker at the finish acts is a good closing note for the watcher had they gone through the film as with What’s Love Got to Do With It resentments of what the ego of the talent does to those it surrounds. There are more Oscar nominations in this movie than can be waved at with a stick.

The only thing missing is Michael Jackson bending over to kiss his face whilst lying in state at The Apollo Theatre.

Out now on general release.

Gail Spencer

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