Arts Feature

James Brown’s Legacy Revived in Get on Up

By Otis R. Taylor Jr.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
james brown get on up
South Carolina-born actor Chadwick Boseman plays James Brown in "Get on Up."

In the studio, James Brown was a perfectionist, a masterful songwriter and producer. 

In his personal life, Brown was so controlling that when he lost his grip on reality, he could spiral completely out of control.

On the stage, well, the self-proclaimed Godfather of Soul was the hardest-working man in show business and one of the greatest performers in pop music history.

So which segment of Brown’s life does Get on Up, the biopic opening in movie theaters Aug. 1, give the most screen time?

Augusta Chronicle music columnist Don Rhodes, a Brown biographer, writes, “James Brown, for sure, is back on the good foot with an incredibly lifelike portrayal by South Carolina-born actor Chadwick Boseman.”

Boseman played Jackie Robinson in 42, the movie about the integration of Major League Baseball. For Get on Up, Boseman worked with choreographer Aakomon Jones to perfect Brown moves like the one-legged sideways shimmy across the stage that culminates in a split. 

“I had to answer to the man’s family,” Boseman told the New York Daily News. “They were very concerned that we get it right. It made me work that much harder.”

Early reviews suggest Boseman holds his own as Brown in the film directed by Tate Taylor (The Help) and produced by the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Hollywood producer Brian Grazer. Boseman even mimics Brown’s ad-libs.

As lifelike as Boseman and the other actors might be, Get on Up would suffer without Brown’s original master recordings — and the film does use Brown’s original music. But it takes drama to tell Brown’s whole story.

“Like many musicians,” Nelson George writes in The New York Times, “Brown suggested in interviews that you’d learn all you need to know about him by listening to his music, but that actually isn’t true.”

Brown, a musical pioneer, was a maverick in business. Financial troubles left his estate millions in debt when he died on Christmas Day 2006. The estate is still mired in litigation, but Russell Bauknight, the court-appointed fiduciary, has erased the debts by leaning on Brown’s most valuable asset: his music.

Whatever personal trials Brown endured throughout his career, his music rarely suffered; widely admired by generations of R&B and hip-hop performers, Brown is considered the most-sampled artist in music.

Get on Up will likely lead to increased interest in Brown’s music, much like the increased interest in Johnny Cash after Walk the Line and in Ray Charles with the film Ray.

Early evaluations of the film have been mostly favorable, but perhaps viewers should head to Get on Up with Brown’s colloquialisms and song titles in mind. Here’s a checklist:

  • The film’s title was taken from one of Brown’s most popular songs, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.” “The way I like it is the way it is,” Brown sings. Is Get on Up an accurate portrayal of how it was?
  • Would a screening make Brown jump back and want to kiss himself?
  • If Brown applied his trademark ad-lib “Good God” to the film, would the reference be positive or negative?
  • At his best, Brown felt nice like sugar and spice, as he sings in “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Is this a feel-good movie?
  • “Name me any other country you can start as a shoeshine boy and shake hands with the president,” Brown says in “America is My Home.” Is there enough of his rags-to-riches storyline?
  • “I don’t care about your wants / I just wanna tell you ‘bout the dos and don’ts,” Brown sings in “Cold Sweat.” Would the film make Brown wake up in a cold sweat? And would he begin a conversation with producers using the aforementioned lyrics?
  • “I don’t know karate, but I know ka-razy,” Brown sings on the extended version of “The Payback.” How much ka-razy shows up on screen?

There aren’t enough reviews in for Get on Up to have generated an rating yet. But on movie site Rotten Tomatoes, 90 percent of users surveyed say they want to see the film.

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