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“Get On Up” Explores the Life and Career of James Brown

Howard University alum Chadwick Boseman portrays the godfather of soul in this new feature film.

A pre-screening panel discussion featured, from left, director Tate Taylor, star Chadwick Boseman, Reverend Al Sharpton, and moderator Touré.

On Tuesday evening, Comcast and NBC Universal hosted a screening of the upcoming James Brown biopic Get On Up at the Newseum. The film, which opens wide August 1, stars Howard University alum Chadwick Boseman—currently best-known for portraying another African-American legend, baseball player Jackie Robinson, in last year’s 42.

The pre-show reception offered Southern-style food (fried-catfish sliders, cornbread muffins) and a deejay spinning Brown hits; as participants filed into their seats in the auditorium, they were followed by a brass band, who marched down the aisles playing instrumental versions of Brown’s hits. 

Before the screening began, Touré, a music critic and host of MSNBC’s The Cycle, hosted a panel discussion with the film’s director, Tate Taylor—who also directed 2011’s The Help—Boseman, and Reverend Al Sharpton, who had a close personal relationship with Brown and, according to the panel, once acted as Brown’s manager. 

During the discussion, Taylor revealed that the film was shot in 49 days in 96 locations in Mississippi. When Touré jokingly asked whether Taylor was vying for his “black card” by making Get On Up as well as The Help, Taylor joked right back that he already had one. (Get On Up reunites Taylor with his Help stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play Brown’s mother and aunt, respectively; The Help got Davis an Academy Award nod and Spencer a win.) Most of the questions directed at Boseman regarded how he managed to nail Brown’s distinctive walk and mannerisms; the audience at one point demanded to see Boseman demonstrate the famous stride, though he demurred. Sharpton shared a couple of anecdotes about the man he came to know so well that Brown began referring to him as “son,” including the story of when Michael Jackson attended a concert of Brown’s. After the show, Jackson moonwalked for Brown, who responded, “See that’s the problem: I’m here to get black folks going forward; you’ve got ’em going backward.” 

As for the movie? It’s very well-acted, the costumes are a visual feast, and the makeup and aging effects are some of the most subtle and convincing this viewer has seen in quite some time. But for a biopic, Get On Up is not very enlightening about its subject’s life.

The movie begins with a scene of Brown later in his life before flashing back to his troubled childhood and following him along his journey to stardom, though it occasionally jumps around in time without offering the viewer much to orient herself. Some exposition is skipped over, which is either a refreshing avoidance of spoon-feeding or a source of confusion depending on the audience’s prior knowledge of Brown’s story. The whole film is suffused with a surrealist glow that makes it even harder for those who don’t recall the specifics of Brown’s life to parse what’s based in fact and what’s a product of Hollywood-ized creative license. 

To its credit, the film doesn’t shy away from the less-than-charming aspects of Brown’s personality: his egotism, his treatment of his band members. But some of the singer’s serious problems, including drug use, domestic abuse, and tax evasion, are touched on briefly and then never brought up again. The script is occasionally heavy-handed with its dialogue and symbolism (never more so than in a ludicrous car-chase scene later in the movie).

There are excellent moments, though. The concert scenes crackle with energy; all the performances used real recordings of Brown—and while Boseman may not have done the singing, he showed an impressive mastery of Brown’s signature dance moves. The delightfully deadpan Nelsan Ellis (True Blood’s Lafayette) is wonderful as Brown’s friend and longtime band member Bobby Byrd, and Dan Akroyd as record executive and pseudo-father figure Ben Bart brings plenty of warmth to his role. (Surprisingly, the generally hilarious Craig Robinson isn’t given much to do.) 

Overall, it’s a softly lit portrait of a talented, complicated man. As Boseman said during the pre-show panel, “light and darkness existed in almost every moment of his life.” Get On Up is decidedly focused on the former. 

Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.

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