Making the Grades
Not surprisingly, with Tate Taylor, the director of The Help at the helm (along with some of his cast members from that movie) and the likes of Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger producing, Get On Up is a polished piece of work that covers decades of musical history surrounding one of the greatest legends of R&B and soul music. In fact, James Brown was so unique he developed a new genre called “funk” that has literally become an ingredient for much of the music we hear today. (“Literally” because Brown’s music is often “sampled” in various new songs and revisions of his tunes.)
Using a non-linear timeline that bounces between five decades, this film chronicles various stages of Brown’s life, including his severely disadvantaged childhood (where he is played by Jordan Scott and Jamarion Scott) when his mother (Viola Davis) left him with his abusive father (Lennie James). From there Brown is shuffled into a brothel under the care of Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), followed by a visit to the penitentiary after stealing a suit. Eventually he finds refuge within the Byrd residence.
It is Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) who brings James into his religious family. A musician who sings in a gospel group at the prison where Brown is incarcerated, Bobby recognized the potential in the young inmate. He hopes to share with him some of the same Christian love taught about in his home too. Still, Bobby’s father is reluctant to embrace the prodigal, who ends up being a mixed blessing. Although Brown does get back on his feet and begins what becomes a long and successful career with Bobby, he also takes advantage of the close proximity he has to Bobby’s sister (we see their relationship briefly portrayed with clothed sexual activity).
Soon James Brown (now played by Chadwick Boseman) is making solid music with Bobby’s small group called The Famous Flames. From there, thanks to help from trusted manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), he follows a path to fame lined with golden moments of charitable work and USO performances. Yet it is potholed as well with egotistic arrogance, vicious domestic squabbles, mismanagement of finances and violent run-ins with the law. At the lowest point, seen in the opening and closing moments of the film, the singer enters one of his own businesses with a shotgun and threatens a woman who has used “his” toilet. The outcome is a police chase, with shots being fired between cars, followed by an arrest.
If you’re a fan of Brown’s music you’ll be treated to a variety of his songs performed with precision singing and dancing that punctuate this well-over two-hour picture. However you’ll also find some disturbing moments of racial prejudice, along with brutality toward women and children. The scenes fall short of explicit but may still be bothersome to young audiences. Even more disappointing are the lack of consequences portrayed for many of these hostile and hasty decisions. Viewers of this movie may simply see James Brown as a determined man who is able to overcome vast odds to achieve his goals. This is a worthy and noble trait, however his treatment of women, his band members and even his various visits to prison might be construed only as obstacles he must surmount. There is little evidence offered to suggest he has learned from his mistakes.
Other content concerns include infrequent scatological slang, mild profanities, and a single sexual expletive. Many scenes feature cigarette and tobacco use (accurate for the periods portrayed in this film) along with alcohol consumption, sometimes to the point of intoxication. Drug references are heard and in one scene an illicit substance is added to tobacco in a cigarette.
Like so many other bio-pics about famous musicians, Get On Up delivers elements that seem all too familiar. A troubled childhood, personality conflicts with band members, money problems and domestic abuse with a collection of wives and ex-wives. This observation isn’t meant as a criticism specific to this film—Get On Up provides good performances and its manipulation of time works well to contrast the various stages of Brown’s life in a unique and engaging way. However, after having watched many of these “underprivileged kid makes it big” movies, I can’t help but wonder why current rising stars (some whose lives seem to have better beginnings) are still making so many of the same mistakes. Perhaps they need to sit through a half-dozen of these films and see the same tragic pattern repeating over and over and over.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Get On Up.
When James is living with the Byrd family he says that he feels God has a plan for him. How do his spiritual remarks contrast with some of his actions? In reality James Brown supported many charities, specifically ones aimed at helping under educated and impoverished children. At the same time he committed criminal acts at different periods of his life. Do you think this is paradoxical behavior? Do we see similar examples from other celebrities?
Why do you think most biographical movies about famous people begin with a disadvantaged childhood? Do you think people would be just as excited to view a film about a child born into a wealthy family who achieves stardom? Do portrayals like this motivate you to want to achieve greater things in life?
Learn more about James Brown.