GET ON UP (USA/12A/139mins)
Directed by Tate Taylor. Starring Chadwick Boweman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Josh Hopkins.
THE PLOT: Opening on James Brown (Boseman) taking a lone backstage walk to a baying, swaying crowd, we swiftly jump back to 1988, and a bad day for Mr. Brown, as he has a rifle-toting meltdown after discovering the bathroom at his rented-out business HQ has been used. That day ends with a high-speed police car chase along Interstate 20 over the Georgia-South Carolina state borderline.
But before the car chase, we jump back again, twice - first to Brown in 1968, at the height of his powers, and being none-too-impressed at being told by his manager Ben Bart (Aykroyd) that English pop sensation The Rolling Stones are going to close the show, not him. Then we jump back even further, to 1939, and to the 6-year-old soul legend James Brown, in Elko, South Carolina, being raised in a shack deep in the woods by a drunken, violent, randomly absent father (James) and a loving but soon-gone mother (Davis). Dropped off by the former to live with his Aunt Honey (Spencer), the young Brown had a Richard Pryor upbringing, learning the tricks of some dodgy trades at his aunt's brothel. It was a spell in prison that finally sparked Brown's musical career, taking over The Gospel Starlighters and turning them away from spiritual to the secular - and into The Famous Flames - once on the outside. And that's when all the musical majesty and egotistical madness starts...
THE VERDICT: Hot on the heels of the similarly likeable-if-not-quite-Daniel-Day-intense Hendrix biopic, JIMI: ALL BY MY SIDE, this Mick Jagger-produced James Brown biopic certainly captures some of the spark and snark of the true soul brother no.1. Arguably black Elvis, James Brown changed soul music and all that came after him dramatically, largely by using every instrument as percussion. And writing such kick-ass soul classics as Cold Sweat, I Got You (I Feel Good), Papa's Got A Brand New Bag and Get On The Good Foot.
James Joseph Brown was also the kind of egotist who very likely called out his own name at the point of orgasm. It was an ego that would see Brown change how musicians did business too, taking control over his career in ways that hadn't been attempted before. Most of it was designed to bring more money into his account, which may explain why he treated his band members so poorly too, with only dedicated sideman Bobby Byrd (Ellis) sticking it out for the long haul, until their friendship finally suffocated.
With the sort of Deep South upbringing that breeds deep soul, Brown was truly remarkable. And it's the kind of remarkable that a biopic could only hope to hint at. It doesn't help that director Tate Taylor (THE HELP) delivers a film that's far more TV3 than BBC Four.
For the real deal, go check out the clips. And go play the music. Ridiculously loud.
Like so many musical icons, drugs and taxes got Brown in the end, but he went out swinging, becoming his own tribute act but, it would seem, partying to the end. Although not shown here, at the end of the infamous police car chase in September, 1988 that led to a six-year prison sentence, the arresting officer alleged that when Brown's bullet-ridden truck finally came to a crashing halt, "Mr. Brown exited the vehicle singing Georgia and doing his good foot dance". Now, that's a legend.
Review by Paul Byrne