Get on Up
Runtime 137 minutes.
OK for children.
This is the way that a biopic of a music legend should be brought to screen. It’s full of music and Chadwick Boseman is lip-syncing to the voice of James Brown. It would have been a tragedy to have someone try to mimic a voice that was one of a kind. Boseman achieves the level of the best, Larry Parks lip-syncing to Al Jolson’s voice in The Jolson Story (1946). If he doesn’t get an Oscar® for this, something’s wrong, but I thought he should have received an Oscar® last year for his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in 42 and he wasn’t even nominated.
I was neither a fan nor a connoisseur of Brown’s music (funk and soul) and my feelings haven’t changed. Except for “I Feel Good,” I just wasn’t that familiar with it. But his music is so lively and has such a beat and he was such an amazing dancer, that the music can’t help but captivate you, even if you’re not that familiar with it. Some of Brown’s hits that are sung in their entirety include “Please, Please, Please,” “Out of Sight,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Try Me,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.”
But this isn’t just a concert. It’s also Brown’s story, and it is an amazing one, starting as a son rejected by both of his parents. Young James is played by identical twins eight-year-old Jordan and Jamarion Scott, and they give award-quality performances as the indomitable youth.
Oscar®-winner Sharen Davis recreated Brown’s wild clothes and Boseman looks at home in them. There were 50 complete costumes changes. The only difference was that Brown wore extremely tight pants. Because Boseman, at 6-1, is five inches taller than Brown, Davis designed the pants Boseman wore to be somewhat looser so that his long legs were de-emphasized.
What really impressed me were Boseman’s teeth that always showed Brown’s distinctive underbite. Boseman wore a set of removable teeth that are impossible to tell are prosthetics.
Well directed with fine pace by Tate Taylor (from a script by Jez Butterworth & John Henry Butterworth), the film adopts the probably apocryphal tale that Bobby Byrd’s (Nelsan Ellis) family got him sprung from prison. What probably happened is that S. C. Lawson, who owned a car company, promised him a job for two years in order to get him out on parole. In real life he joined a gospel group and worked for Lawson as a janitor after his parole. He probably met Byrd sometime later and joined up with his band that eventually became “The Famous Flames.” But what they put in the movie works cinematically, even if it might not be the way it really happened.
Unfortunately, like most Hollywood movies about celebrities, this is a whitewash. There is no mention of his illegitimate children (at least three), and his wife beatings and abuse of drugs are only mentioned in passing. As to drugs, he was hypocritical. He was admirably fastidious in not allowing any of his employees and band members to use drugs and fired them when he caught them. But he held them to a much higher standard than he had for himself. He had serious drug problems. For instance, he was arrested for hitting his third wife, Adrienne Lois Rodriguez, with a lead pipe while high on PCP. But the movie is not only silent on this and almost all of his other domestic violence incidents (there were many) and use of drugs, as far as this film is concerned Rodriguez never existed, even though they were married for 12 years.
But this is a movie and meant to be entertaining, and it is. While it’s Brown’s voice, it’s really Boseman doing the dancing and Brown couldn’t do it much better. One day Boseman had to do more than 60 splits. Boseman expertly captures Brown’s certitude and charm, not only in his career choices but in his business dealings. Boseman also duplicates Brown’s manner of speaking, which meant that often I found him very difficult to understand.
This is an entertaining, if soft-soaped, biopic that doubles as a wonderful concert of Brown’s music. One of these days Hollywood will make a biopic of an entertainer and tell the truth, which is a much better story than what they put on the screen here. The problem with doing a whitewash like this is that when the viewers discover they’ve been hoodwinked, they don’t know what to believe. Much of Brown’s story is amazing and admirable, rising from abject poverty, a rough, hardscrabble existence as a child and teenager, to worldwide fame, success, and acclaim. But tell the flaws with the good.