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Get On Up

Year: 2014
Production Co: Imagine Entertainment
Studio: Universal
Director: Tate Taylor
Producer: Brian Grazer, Mick Jagger, Tate Taylor
Writer: John-Henry Butterworth, Jez Butterworth
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Craig Robinson, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Tika Sumpter, Allison Janney

I've never been a particular fan of James Brown's, so I wasn't sure what drew me to this movie. Maybe it was just the hope that a star who made himself a household name with another tired superhero franchise (Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther) would do something really special in a prestige film that's actually about a character rather than visual effects.

Director Tate Taylor (The Help), from a script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, takes a lot of liberties both with the timeline and the chronology as he tells Brown's story, and in almost the entire two and a half hour running time there's a lot that's less about plot and a lot more just a fever dream of the influences, style and legacy Brown lived.

We start with a frankly bizarre sequence where Brown, long after the period of his greatest fame, appears to be the brains or money behind a program of selling timeshare properties to mom and pop investors.

When a woman leaves the small, community hall-style gathering to use the ladies, a drunk/drugged/maybe just himself Brown bursts into the meeting brandishing a shotgun, using the bathroom himself, wanting to know who left the smell in it, all the attendees cowering in fear and not wanting to admit it lest they get murdered and Brown, when he pinpoints the distraught victim, launches into a soulful rant about how you've got to take care of yourself.

W, you start off the film by asking yourself, TF? It's not clear what it's saying about what kind of man Brown is or what anything that led to that point has to do with it. There's an inkling later on that the script just wants to establish that, despite his talent and originality, Brown wasn't altogether a good person.

In a later scene, when he and his wife are handing candy out to neighbourhood kids dressed in Christmas garb and one of the kids' father ogles her, Brown later he smacks her so hard he knocks her off her feet, like it's her fault.

Other than all that it's described as a stream of consciousness, as if Brown himself is the film ruminating on his life. We see his upbringing in the wilderness in pre-war Georgia where his parents are both singularly awful people, hating each other, neither of them wanting him, his father (Lennie James) turning out to be abusive as well and eventually abandoning him to the care of a female family member who runs a town brothel, which is where James is bought up.

He goes to jail for stealing a suit and it's there he hears the gospel music that he'll recast in his own name and become a star on the back of. He forms a singing troupe with one of the performers who inspired him so much in prison, the recording industry beckons, and fame follows.

But the path is far from easy and because he comes of age in the civil rights era Brown becomes a lighting rod for controversy. It also touches on the trouble he had with the IRS and the relationships that swirl, form and break round him in equal measure for the rest of his life.

It would have been a great gig for an actor like Boseman to sink his teeth into – the voice and stance he wields to portray Brown is as meaty as the undercurrents that make him the man he is.

It's slightly less rewarding if you're the audience but you feel like you've learned something about the guy he was. And Tate's direction matches Brown's apparent personality – energetic, frenetic, take no prisoners and never staying still for long. If you're a fan of Brown's it's probably pretty essential.

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