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‘Get on Up’: The rage and genius of James Brown

By Nsenga K. Burton
The Root
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/01/16/23/VFeqn.Em.138.jpeg|269
    Handout - MCT
    Dan Aykroyd as James Brown’s manager and Chadwick Boseman as Brown in “Get On Up.”
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/01/16/23/lW3oe.Em.138.jpeg|380
    MATT DUNHAM - AP
    The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, performing at the Live 8 concert in Edinburgh, Scotland in July 2005.

The life story of the great soul singer James Brown is a complicated one.

Brown is as well-known for being a musical genius as he is for being a tyrannical, abusive bandleader and spouse. The man who grew up in abject poverty in South Carolina and Georgia danced, sang and shouted his way into a world of fame, fortune and greatness.

Not satisfied with just being a performer, Brown grabbed the reins of his management to maximize business opportunities and ownership.

A man who was known and respected for his business acumen early in his career, Brown was mocked in his later years for poor business decisions and tax problems. He was able to stop violence in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 but was unable to quiet the chaos that dwelt inside him or quell his penchant for violence against women.

Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow”) do an admirable job of capturing the demons and the delight of James Brown in the biopic “Get On Up.”

Thanks to the acting chops of Chadwick Boseman (“42”), who seems to be building a career playing famous figures, Brown’s duality is on full display throughout the film. Boseman, whose stoic performance as Jackie Robinson in “42” reflected the self-restraint required of Robinson in his quest to break the color barrier in baseball, is set free in his depiction of the Godfather of Soul.

In “Get On Up,” Boseman – who practiced six hours a day to nail Brown’s signature dance moves – unleashes the passion, rage and genius of Brown, who was obsessed with bringing the funk to the world.

Film and music buffs will get a kick out of seeing soul singers Jill Scott, Aloe Blacc and rapper-musician Black Thought playing a variety of Brown’s musical peers, but will also lament the exclusion of Brown’s contemporary Tammi Terrell, a singer with the voice of an angel, who had a tumultuous relationship with Brown at the peak of their careers.

While Brown’s GOP leanings and bootstrap philosophy were never mentioned in the film, the filmmakers made sure to expose viewers to Brown’s connection to politics, social change and making a way out of no way. With the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger serving as a producer on the film, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Nelson George as consultants, “Get on Up” does an excellent job of showing the unpredictable conditions black performers like Brown faced when trying to make great music.

“Get On Up” is peppered with historic scenes, like Brown’s performances on the T.A.M.I. Show and at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Brown sums it up best: “Ain’t nothing to cry about. I’m James Brown.”

Burton is editor-at-large at The Root and editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to news related to the African Diaspora and global culture.
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