“Get On Up” (2014). Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Craig Robinson, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Jill Scott, Brandon Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Tika Sumpter, Jacinte Blankenship, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott. Director: Tate Taylor. Screenplay: Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth. Story: Steven Baigelman, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth. Web site. Trailer.
We all possess an inner spark of creativity that, if tapped, enables us to do great things. Recognizing and making use of that spirit within, however, is something many may never attain. But, when we’re cognizant enough to do so, the results can be astounding, as a music industry trailblazer discovers for himself in the entertaining new biopic, “Get On Up.”
Doing justice to the life story of an iconic figure is never an easy undertaking, but “Get On Up” does just that for music industry giant James Brown (1933-2006). As one of the most original and most influential artists of the 20th Century, Brown (Chadwick Boseman) created a sound all his own. And, in doing so, he broke down barriers in the music he created, the audiences he reached and the way the industry does business. (Not bad for an impoverished kid from the South Carolina backwoods.)
The film follows Brown’s life from his youth until his early 60s. Viewers first witness his stormy childhood, during which he’s abandoned by his indifferent mother, Susie (Viola Davis), and then by his abusive father, Joe (Lennie James), ending up in the care of his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), who quickly puts the young James (Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott) to work rounding up “company” for her bevy of female “companions.” Then there’s Brown’s troubled adolescence, when he’s arrested and imprisoned for stealing a suit, a crime for which he receives a sentence of up to 13 years. However, while in jail, he gets an unexpected break from gospel singer Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who, during a performance for inmates, recognizes Brown’s considerable talent and helps get him paroled so he can join his group.
But, while singing in a gospel group helps to get Brown’s career off the ground, it’s obvious that it’s a little too constrained for his burgeoning talent. He quickly emerges as the front man of the group, now known as the Famous Flames, which trades in gospel music for R&B, leaving behind its comparatively subdued sound for a groove that really cooks. And, after a brief but enlightening encounter with a little-known but upcoming artist named Little Richard (Brandon Smith), Brown is on his way. With the aid of manager and agent Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), Brown rapidly rises to national prominence, playing to huge crowds and winning over a fan base that transcends what had been the traditional R&B audience.
Throughout the 1960s, Brown becomes one of the biggest (and richest) stars in the music business. But success carries a cost. With an ego as large as his following, Brown grows increasingly demanding and inflexible. Relations with band members, such as saxophonist Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson), become strained, especially when artistic differences and financial issues surface. Challenges arise on the home front, too, when Brown divorces his first wife, Velma (Jacinte Blankenship), and grows unduly suspicious about the fidelity of his second wife, DeeDee (Jill Scott), a relationship that often turns violent. And, when things sour with his longtime friend and collaborator Bobby, Brown begins a downward spiral that lands him back in prison, a time that gives him pause to reflect on what he had – and lost. However, as Brown’s childhood experience illustrates, he’s a survivor, one who’s determined to come out on top, no matter what.
It’s easy to see why Brown was such a survivor, though; he had a good, innate grasp on his conscious creation abilities. And, even if Brown didn’t recognize this skill as such, others, like Aunt Honey and even his mother, saw the “spirit” that resided within him, a quality that they knew destined him for greatness one day, an observation they shared with him repeatedly. Brown apparently embraced these observations, too, an act that helped him galvanize his beliefs in himself and in the talents he possessed. That, in turn, enabled him to move forward with tremendous confidence when his career took off; he intuitively knew what he wanted to accomplish – and didn’t hesitate to act upon it when the time came. He readily brought forth that inner spirit in all he created, manifesting materializations indicative of a conscious creator firing on all cylinders.
Given the many trials and tribulations of Brown’s life, however, one might rightfully wonder why he created all his difficulties as well. But, as is often the case, incidents like that provide valuable opportunities for significant life lessons, painful though they may be. What’s more, they often serve as preludes to fortuitous synchronicities that enable us to thrive. For example, if Brown hadn’t been imprisoned for stealing a suit, he might never have met Bobby, who played such a crucial role in helping launch his career. Brown even recognizes that fact in the film, noting that he felt his incarceration was destined to lead him to Bobby and his family, who graciously took him in and helped him get back on his feet when he needed it most. On some level, Brown was aware of his inner spirit’s existence, even if he didn’t fully appreciate its nature or what it was capable of.
Brown’s ability to envision the outcomes of his conscious creation efforts was quite strong, so much so that it enabled him to push through barriers and limitations, both personally and professionally. He could hear sounds in his head that others couldn’t, and his ability to transform them into finished pieces was uncanny. At the same time, he could also picture how to reach new audiences and to employ new promotional tactics for his live performances, practices that defied the conventional wisdom but that were immensely successful – moves that made him wealthy and famous.
As noted above, however, Brown often let his ego get in the way. Indeed, he knew he was good at what he did, but he became so enamored with his own expertise that it began to get in the way. And, to get what he wanted, he did whatever it took (it’s no wonder he was often referred to as “the hardest working man in show business”), even if such efforts produced “unintended” consequences.
Metaphysically speaking, an attitude like this often stems from difficulty in distinguishing between the ability to create and the desire to control. Acts of creation occur naturally, almost effortlessly, but acts of control frequently feel forced, pushed into existence at almost any cost. And, even though control-based efforts may yield envisioned outcomes, they’re often accompanied by the aforementioned unplanned consequences, like the alienation of collaborators or romantic partners. This was a difficult lesson for Brown to work through and may have even been an outgrowth of his own survivor mentality. Nevertheless, his experience provides a valuable example to anyone wrestling with comparable issues of their own.
Still, despite the challenges Brown drew into his life, he also accomplished much, manifesting creations that have since inspired many. He truly earned his reputation as “the Godfather of Soul.” But, then, that probably wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t recognized and tapped into the creative soul that resided within him – the same powerful, creative force that resides within each of us.
“Get On Up” is a great homage to James Brown, featuring a masterful portrayal by Boseman, who has truly established himself as one of Hollywood’s preeminent new talents. As good as he was in his breakout performance as baseball great Jackie Robinson in “42” (2013), Boseman has clearly shown the movie world what he’s capable of in this role, capturing Brown’s voice, mannerisms and dance moves with remarkable precision. With this performance, he has staked a claim as a leading contender for accolades come awards season.
But “Get On Up” features more than just a terrific lead performance. Director Tate Taylor, who distinguished himself in his work on “The Help” (2011), has delivered another fine effort in this film. It’s an excellent period piece, effectively capturing the look, feel and mood of several decades’ worth of clothes, hairstyles and sets. It also serves up ample kitschy humor, often simply in its attitude, without having to fish for laughs. The superb supporting cast features an array of capable performances, including those turned in by Aykroyd, Ellis, Davis and Spencer. And then there’s the music, which includes a fine selection of works by Brown and other artists, such as the Rolling Stones, Percy Mayfield and Lesley Gore.
Despite the picture’s many strengths, it nevertheless is not without its problems. Most notable among these is the screenplay, which often wavers between a traditional biography and a character study focused on the influences that shaped the protagonist’s life (an approach skillfully used in films like “The Iron Lady” (2011) and “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” (2004)). As a consequence, the chronology in “Get On Up” is presented out of order, forgoing a straightforward linear timeline, jumping about from decade to decade, an approach some viewers may justifiably find annoying or confusing. The screenwriters would have served audiences better by picking one format and sticking to it. Thankfully, the movie’s other fine attributes compensate for this shortcoming rather well; it’s unfortunate, however, that the script quality didn’t measure up to the same level as the picture’s other elements.
Living up to our creative potential can be a daunting endeavor, especially when we don’t even know what that might entail. But, when we know what we’re supposed to achieve and then set out to do it, we can take pride in our accomplishments, and others are sure to applaud us for our efforts. The rewards associated with that are immeasurable, too. And to think, all it takes is a little spark to set off a creative inferno, one that casts a brilliant light for all to see.
Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.