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Film — Review — GET ON UP — The James Brown Story

Change the tempo of your movie-going experience this summer. We Recommend this movie.

Review by Victoria D. Whitmore

At 139 minutes, a few sequences in GET ON UP stand OUT. The music sequences, storyboarded and composed with care and precision, briskly edited by Michael McCusker and shot like the best of the rock documentaries, incorporate everything but lens flare and split-screen. The music is well mixed and mastered, Chadwick Boseman  and choreographer Aakomon Jones codified the thrills of the James Brown stage show  and deliver the passionate sizzle that was James Brown on stage. Casting credits by Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee offer the best of the acting world with the unstoppable force of  Lennie James, Dan Aykroyd , an incandescent Jill Scott, one of the greatest living actresses in Viola Davis,  a too brief Octavia Spencer, a too brief Tika Sumpter, a SUPERB Little Richard portrayed by Brandon Smith, two wonderful performances by brothers Jamarian and Jordan Scott, an Oscar nomination clincher by Chadwick Boseman and Nelsan Ellis from TRUE BLOOD as the glue holding it all together.

Photo by D Stevens – © 2014 – Universal Pictures
Still of Dan Aykroyd and Chadwick Boseman in Get on Up (2014)


We Recommend this movie.

One moment encapsulates GET ON UP perfectly.

Young James Brown, stripped to his waist with nine other young boys of color — blindfolded, one hand tied behind his back, a boxing glove on the other, a number painted in white paint across his bare chest. Set against each other, the blindfolded boys beat each other in a boxing ring for the amusement of well-heeled Southern whites who laugh, drink, relax, listen to the colored band.

Young James Brown, much smaller than all the other boys, goes down early with a punch to the jaw that draws blood. On the canvas, he slowly slips off the blindfold and sees, beyond him, the black bandmembers, playing some form of old Southern dixieland music.

As James imagines it, the band morphs from playing whatever slow dirge they were paid to play to poppin’ a horn riff, a Classic horn riff, from his future hit SUPERBAD, moving in time to the crisp musical rhythms of the James Brown riff. Then back to the actual dirge, then again to the charged tempo of his riff.

He dreamily rises and dreams of knocking out the remaining boy to stand alone in triumph.

That is the quintessential James Brown story, possibly invented — an unloved boy, huddled together with other young men with impoverished lives furnished from Plantation Earth, who loses his tragic condition of sad loneliness through music — his music. Music made the way he dreams it – with a crisp horn section.

Photo by D Stevens – © 2014 – Universal Pictures
Still of Octavia Spencer in Get on Up (2014)


The other image that stands out : tiny James Brown, seemingly holding up a hanging man, actually stealing the shoes of a lynching victim and then carrying those shoes everywhere until he is old enough to wear them. Whoa.

There are, of course, minor quibbles : Maceo Parker , Pee Wee Ellis get minor but valuable screen time, Bootsy Collins gets name-checked, but no mention is really made of Fred Wesley and the JBs, such a strong propulsive and creative force to James Brown’s music in the 70’s that, when they left, they provided the propulsion for the incredible Parliament/Funkadelic music machine that lasted over three decades. They trained and learned with James Brown, but their contributions are inescapable.

Photo by D Stevens – © 2014 – Universal Pictures


The makeup used for aging the people of color, Brown especially, was just this side of cartoonish. A racist couple in a hotel can’t help but be swayed to dance uncontrollably to the music. A minor quibble, but Still… Is it Impossible to get any people of Color on the Producer side of the camera who can easily point out these issues?

Thank you, Mick Jagger, for the absolute respect accorded to James Brown, but we need some respect for people of color behind the camera when the film is ALL ABOUT people of color.

Maybe this is NOT a minor quibble

Get on Up (2014)


I do think that Get On Up has a very strong director’s point of view, but delivered in a very subtle way. I think it manifests a Southern sensibility.

One example:

A poignant early scene has a young James Brown slowly drawn to the thumping sounds emanating from a backwoods black church, which lure him into the church like the lilt of the Pied Piper. Inside, he enters the world that indelibly stamped the James Brown persona. A fabulous display from a magnetic gospel preacher surrounded by the soul-steppin parishioners captures and enraptures the unresistant James in its sharp authenticity. He is caught by the soul, lost in the shuffle. A Southern-born director can understand that.


Photo by D Stevens – © 2014 – Universal Pictures

A Southern-born director will also buy into the “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” mythos. I think, like The Help, it becomes a theme of determination and rising against unfair odds and uneven upbringing transcended by strong will and strong mind. Again and again, it emphasizes James Brown’s business savvy despite the absence of education.  The old bromide that “in the North, they don’t care how close you get, just don’t get too big while, in the South, they don’t care how big you get, just don’t get too close” has a unusual fascination here. Everyone wants Mr. Brown close, but he cannot do it. As well, the film is a testament to the friendships of  bandmate Bobby Byrd and business manager Ben Bart to Mr. Brown, friendships without racial or class barriers, genuine friendships poised to help James Brown make crucial leaps up the ladder of success. The loss of those friendships is as acutely felt as the pain between the sorrowful and bitter reunion between a successful James Brown and the mother who actually abandoned him. A familial bond that had strong beginnings cut off too soon, a break that would never be repaired. Perhaps that is acutely felt by a Southern-born director too, but I think it is more universal.


Now if you really want to explore more of James Brown in films : head out to New York City at the end of August for the Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective of “the hardest working man in show business”. August 31, in particular, features the JAMES BROWN PERFORMANCE COMPILATION.

We refer readers to Lincoln Center’s description of their retrospective :
James Brown: The Hardest Working Man in Show Business will include

Larry Cohen’s Blaxploitation classic Black Caesar (1973), featuring Brown’s furious theme song;

Brown’s dynamic opening performance of “Living in America” which set the tone for Sylvester Stallone’s over-the-top USA rah-rah spectacle Rocky IV (1985);

his “preaching to the choir” and leading it in John Landis’s sprawling comedy epic The Blues Brothers (1980);

his scratch-heavy, bongo-driven funk set from Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s documentary Soul Power (2008) about the Zaire ’74 music festival;

and what is arguably, the series’ crowning jewel—Brown’s singular and endurance-defying performance (18 minutes long) where he shows fellow guests Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Beach Boys, and notably Mick Jagger with The Rolling Stones how it’s done on The T.A.M.I. Show (1964).

FSLC Programing Coordinator Dan Sullivan programmed the series. “The films in which he appeared, the films he scored, and the films that documented his athletic and impassioned on-stage performances cohere to yield a transfixing portrait of an artist who was both unapologetically political and incomparably funky.”

James Brown: The Hardest Working Man in Film runs August 29 – September 1. Tickets will go on sale Thursday, August 7. Special discount for Labor Day Weekend!  Single screening tickets only $10; $7 for Students, Seniors (62+) and Film Society Members. Visit for additional information.

Films, Schedules, and Descriptions follow:

Black Caesar
Larry Cohen, USA, 1973, 35mm, 87m

“I was born in New York City on a Monday…” This furious, low-budget crime picture dates from the golden age of Blaxploitation, when the genre was mining Hollywood’s past for stock narratives that could be given new and politically radical resonances. Black Caesar reworks the Hollywood gangster film, but the story—a poor black shoeshine boy takes out a corrupt mob boss, only to accept the white man’s power structures when he himself gains control—strikes a closer and more sensitive nerve. By the time Brown recorded the movie’s soundtrack, including the classic “Down and Out in New York City,” his music was evolving into an early and hugely influential form of funk, and its jumpy, aggressive rhythms meld seamlessly with the film’s claustrophobic urban setting.
August 29, 8:30pm
August 30, 6:30pm

The Blues Brothers
John Landis, USA, 1980, 35mm, 133m

The Blues Brothers—Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, at the height of their comedic and dramatic powers—were a pair of SNL characters before they were a band, and a band before they were a pair of film heroes. (Their first album was released in 1978.) But their big-screen debut, a trigger-happy action odyssey in which the two brothers, one fresh out of jail, flee Nazis, cops, and country singers in an attempt to put on one great show, remains their crowning achievement, partly thanks to its scene-stealing musical cameos: Aretha Franklin as the singing proprietress of a soul-food restaurant; Ray Charles as a music-store owner; and Brown—whom the movie’s success temporarily helped lift out of a professional slump—as the roof-raising leader of a gospel choir.
August 30, 8:30pm
September 1, 3:30pm

James Brown Performance Compilation
Digital projection, approx. 75m

A truly one-of-a-kind assortment of clips of the Godfather of Soul, on stage and in his element. Spanning multiple periods of his career and featuring invaluable footage of Brown on The Ed Sullivan Show and Soul Street, this selection finds Mr. Dynamite workin’ it as only he could. Archival footage courtesy of Historic Films Archives and Joe Lauro.
August 31, 4:30pm & 9:00pm

Rocky IV
Sylvester Stallone, USA, 1985, 35mm, 91m

The Cold War was nearing the end of its Reagan-era upsurge in 1985, when Sylvester Stallone made this theatrical, circus-like, and unabashedly entertaining vision of U.S.-Soviet relations at their most cartoonishly divided. The plot of Rocky IV centers on the Italian Stallion’s revenge match against the impassive Russian “mountain of muscle” Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, in his breakout role) after the latter kills his friend and rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring. But the highlight is Creed’s entrance near the start of the film, with James Brown standing in the flesh at the front of the ring as the fight’s master of ceremonies.
September 1, 1:15pm & 6:00pm

Ski Party
Alan Rafkin, USA, 1965, 35mm, 90m

“Are you really the ski patrol?” Brown, flanked by the Famous Flames, literally skis into this prime slice of ’60s youth-movie cheese and, yanking off his winter coat, makes a cabin of sweatered, smiling teenagers feel good. Ski Party, in which certified heartthrob Frankie Avalon and his right-hand man Dwayne Hickman disguise themselves as young women to get special access to their sweethearts’ social lives, was an alpine extension of the then-booming beach-party genre (famed for its heavy use of musical cameos). Brown’s performance, backed by an invisible organ and horn section, is the movie’s highlight, and another milestone besides: filming the scene, Brown later confessed, was the only time that he had gone in for a split and torn the seat of his pants.
August 29, 4:30pm
August 30, 4:30pm

Soul Power
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, USA, 2008, 35mm, 92m

Zaire ’74—a three-day music festival for which dozens of top-flight performers, some African, others American, convened in Kinshasa a month before Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle”—took place during a period of intense political and artistic ferment in American music. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s document of the festival, assembled more than 30 years after the fact (from footage shot by, among others, Albert Maysles and Roderick Young) and bookended by a pair of searing performances by Brown, captures the event in all its tension, ecstasy, sweat, and uncertainty: Ali trades mock-punches with the lead singer of The Spinners, Bill Withers brings down the roof with a devastating rendition of “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and revolution is in the air throughout. Soul Power is a revealing portrait of an era as manifested by some of its most dynamic and politically engaged performers.
August 29, 6:30pm
August 30, 2:30pm

The T.A.M.I. Show
Steve Binder, USA, 1964, 16mm, 123m

The Holy Grail of concert films—with an eye-popping lineup including Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones—went unseen outside the bootleg circuit for decades due to rights disputes. Seen in its full glory, it’s a showcase for American pop music at the undisputed height of its passion, humor, pathos, virtuosity, and vigor. Lesley Gore’s voice was never more commanding, and Mick Jagger shakes a mean maraca, but the undisputed highpoint is Brown’s four-song set: a sustained, expertly modulated outpouring of passion performed—fittingly, for an artist who began his career as a gospel singer—with the sweaty, bone-straining urgency of a man who feels his soul is on the line.
August 31, 2:00pm & 6:30pm

When We Were Kings
Leon Gast, USA, 1996, 35mm, 88m

Leon Gast’s now-classic documentary on the “Rumble in the Jungle”—Muhammad Ali’s triumphant Kinshasa fight against heavyweight champion George Foreman—took more than two decades to finish. By the time of completion, it had become a reflection on the responsibilities and demands of fame, a snapshot of a moment when black Americans were starting, partly thanks to Ali’s example, to embrace their African heritage en masse, and a hymn to Ali’s mesmerizing, canny presence outside the ring. With commentary by Spike Lee and Norman Mailer and appearances by B.B. King, The Seekers, and Brown—seen here greeting Ali at the airport, hanging out with Don King, and, in one scene, turning to the camera and making a passionate appeal for black empowerment.
September 1, 8:00pm








August 1, 2014 - Posted by | CULTURE, FILM, LIFESTYLES, We Recommend | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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