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Watching stuff: "Get On Up"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: August 1, 2014

Chadwick Boseman makes a superb James Brown in the movie biography of the Godfather of Soul, "Get On Up."

The movie itself has some problems: its structure, which moves around the chronology of Brown's life, is over-ambitious; it could have been more pointed about Brown's personal flaws, and there's at least one musical moment that does not convey what it might have*. Beacon Journal pop-music writer Malcolm Abram found it especially wanting in another way, as you can see in our latest "Two Guys Talkin'" video for

But as an attempt to explain Brown, and especially as a demonstration of his intelligence and his timeless musical virtuosity, "Get On Up" works very well. In fact, when I left the theater, I feared that nothing on the radio driving home would sound right after two-hours-plus of Mr. Dynamite, and I was correct. Everything sounded either wan or imitative; even when a James Brown song finally came on, it was the decidedly minor "Ants in My Pants."**

Moving from 1993 to 1988 to Brown's childhood and then back and forth in his career and personal life, "Get On Up" shows Brown's upbringing as an abused and neglected child, his discovery of solace in music, his long friendship with Bobby Byrd (well played by Nelsan Ellis of "True Blood"), his business savvy, his musical instincts and, finally, the point at which his ego and paranoia overwhelmed everything good in his world.

In two hours and 18 minutes, there are the key moments, such as his making the early and groundbreaking live album and his dramatic T.A.M.I. show performance, which one-upped the Rolling Stones because they had insisted on closing the concert instead of Brown. (*Unfortunately, the re-creation of Brown's T.A.M.I. performance barely demonstrates how epic the real thing was -- look for it on YouTube.) There's a splendid scene where James describes how he can make more money from touring, taking control of his business while rejecting the cliched offer of a new car the cost of which will just end up buried in expenses charged to him.

Even with a cast including Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, both in relatively minor roles, the central performance is by Boseman. You may know his Jackie Robinson in "42," and there is a glimmer in that performance of what he has done with Brown. As I said when "42" came out, Boseman caught the chll and the surliness that were at times part of Robinson, and definitely in Brown***; Boseman's outspoken Vontae Mack in "Draft Day" was an even better indication of what he might do with Brown. And he does it very well, capturing Brown's vanity, fury and deep-set sorrow -- as well as the charisma Brown brought to the stage. The vocals are Brown's own, but Boseman has mastered Butane James's stage movements with riveting skill. The offstage Brown is also well drawn, especially in his bonding and conflict with Byrd, who through Ellis is Boseman's dramatic match.

Whatever you may think of the movie as a whole. Boseman cannot be disdained; he no more allows that than James Brown would have.

**The same thing has happened lately when I've been listening to James Brown Radio on Pandora; much as I love Al Green and B.B. King, they seem diminished by a context of James Brown songs. It was even more marked when the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" came on. Really, Pandora? On the James Brown channel? Or was that the intended joke when you followed the Bee Gees with James's "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing"?

***Another memorable moment from Brown's life: His working on "Ski Party," a terrible Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello movie that had James and the Famous Flames in ghastly ski sweaters. "Get On Up" includes it, as well as a sense of what Brown felt at the time -- and his frosty demand for respect in conversation with Avalon.

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