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The Hardest Working Man in Show Business Gets His Story Told

Chadwick Boseman (right) as James Brown and Nelsan Ellis (left) as sidekick Bobby Byrd.

By Dwight Brown

This much-awaited bio-film tells you some things you already knew: James Brown could sing the funk out of a song. It also shows you some things you might not have grasped: troubled boys grow up to be troubled men. Warts and all, in fits and starts, finally the Hardest Working Man in Show Business gets his story told.

As the film unfolds, a young James Brown (Jordan and Jamarion Scott) lives with his mother Susie (Viola Davis) and his father Joe (Lennie James, Snatch) in a shack in backwoods South Carolina. Mom and dad have a torrid and abusive relationship. At a tender age, she abandons James. One day dad drops him off at his Aunt Honey’s (Octavia Spencer) whorehouse. James becomes a barker, driving customers to Honey’s house of prostitution. James can’t stay out of a trouble as a kid and as a teen (Chadwick Boseman, 42) his law-breaking ways get him a prison sentence.  Behind bars he meets a gospel group headed by Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, True Blood). Before you can count, a-one-and-a-two, Brown is paroled into Byrd’s home and he becomes the lead singer of gospel-turned-soul group called “The Flames.” That chance meeting turns Brown’s life around.

Screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) with the help of a story by Steven Baigelman (Feeling Minnesota) infuse a lot of facts, events, tragedy, family drama and music group dynamics into the storyline.

Between director Tate Taylor, the writers and the editor Michael McCusker, someone made the misguided decision to tell this story not as a straightforward bio film but as a disconcerting series of flashbacks, that feel more random than rhythmic. Long after Brown is a full-grown man, there are clips of him interspersed as a kid, as if his childhood haunted him into his later years.  Once you see young James pulling the shoes of a lynched man and saving them for himself, you know he has a tortured soul.  You don’t have to be beaten over the head, for 133 minutes, with flashbacks.

Seeing Get On Up is like attending a long-winded memorial service. You know you need to go.  You know you need to be respectful. Even if the deacons of the church didn’t assemble the best program, it’s not about the incidentals. It’s about sharing and reclaiming the memory of the Godfather of Soul—the man whose music put a smile on your face and a kick in your step.

Visit NNPA  Film Critic Dwight Brown at

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