Rik’s Watch: Get On Up Gets the Music, But Forgets the Man

As a kid, I remember James Brown and his capes. One of the many things I was upset about that wasn't addressed in the film. The list goes on.

As a kid, I remember James Brown and his capes. One of the many things I was upset about that wasn’t addressed in the film. The list goes on.

First, let’s get something out of the way: Chadwick Boseman stole my heart about two weeks ago when I stumbled upon 42 on HBO and, although I was ashamed of just now seeing the film that premiered more than a year ago, my heart beat triple time at Chadwick’s innocent eyes and timid smile.

Now that we’re clear on my current (albeit distant) love interest, we can move on.

I saw Get On Up with my mom on its premiere date this past Friday. Although I was excited to see the film, there is always an inkling of pessimism that lingers in the back of mind before seeing a biopic. Will this person’s story be told with authenticity and fairness? How much of it is fiction? Is the person cast to play them worthy of the role? Can they pull it off? 

In all fairness, I believe that Chadwick undoubtedly did an outstanding job portraying James Brown (this having nothing to do with my professed love for him). From the mashed potato to the umpteen splits, he carried the late creator of soul from start to finish. But, it is the start to finish that has left me, as a moviegoer, considerably confused about who James Brown actually was.

I’m only a twentysomething with a lot of wisdom, so my knowledge on the musician only stretches so far. However, there are things that I remember about James Brown as I was growing up: his cape, his perm, “This Is a Man’s World,” but it won’t be anything without a woman or a girl, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud,” and that time he performed with Michael Jackson at the BET Awards. Other moviegoers’ knowledge might stretch to those exact lengths, which is why the film, as a biopic, should have given us a history lesson on Mr. Brown.

First, the chronology of the film was so out of sync that I rendered it completely unnecessary to read the time stamps that appeared infrequently throughout the film. We start with a car chase, then we’re on a plane that’s about to get attacked in Vietnam, then we’re in Augusta with young James, then we’re in jail with James, now we’re back in Augusta with young James, and now James has gone solo–all while I sit in my movie chair, spilling popcorn all over myself trying to keep up and frantically wishing I had a remote to press pause so I can figure out where this is going.

Seriously, am I the only one wondering what happened to his mom after she showed up to his show at the Apollo? What in the hell happened to Didi after his son died? Why did we see a funeral for Pop but not his son? And what in the hell happened to Pop? How did his son get into a car accident? When did he get on drugs (and what kind of drugs were they)? What happened to Aunt Honey? Why didn’t we EVER get introduced to Velma prior to her dropping her son off to catch a flight on the James Brown plane?

I understand that you can only fit so much information into a movie, but if you make a film 2 hours and 18 minutes, at least answer more questions than you pose. I left the theater wanting to become a James Brown-extraordinaire and read every book on the subject, just so I can fill in the empty pieces. Tate Taylor, we thank you for trying, but next time, at least leave us with a bibliography so we can figure out why you struggled to compile a comprehensive story.

Tate directed The Help, which didn’t render much complaints, quite possibly because the book was already written and he’s good friends with the author. But then again, that wasn’t our story. The story was about white women with black maids (simply put). Get On Up, however, was a story about a man who sparked a cultural revolution, who endured a great load of responsibility as the creator of a musical genre that is embedded in every artist from Usher to Chris Brown to Beyoncé to Zendaya, and the list goes on. Yes, the music was there and so were the time stamps, but the man was missing.

Did creativity overshadow storytelling in this film? Quite possibly. Was there even a story to tell? Or, could it be, that we simply have to be careful about who we allow to tell our stories?


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