Get On Up


The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

(2014) Musical Biography (Universal) Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Josh Hopkins, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Tariq Trotter, Aloe Blacc, Keith Robinson, Atkins Eastmond, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott, Stacey Scowley, Ahna O’Reilly. Directed by Tate Taylor

James Brown has never really gotten his due other than by his peers and true music buffs. He never achieved the sales that one would assume that someone who revolutionized pop music should have gotten, and yet when you look at the latter half of the 20th century, the most influential figures to come out of it are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and James Brown. He is the most-sampled artist in history, and virtually every song on your digital music storage device owes something to James Brown.

Before he was the legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Boseman) was a young boy in rural Georgia. Abandoned by his mother Susie (Davis) at a young age and raised primarily by his alcoholic father Joe (James), he was dropped off with Aunt Honey (Spencer) who ran a brothel. There he grew up huckstering the house of ill repute for African-American soldiers coming into town on weekend passes, and going to the local church to listen to gospel music and watch the ecstasy of dance.

While in jail for stealing a suit, he met Bobby Byrd (Ellis) who led a group called the Gospel Starlighters. Byrd would end up bringing James home and bringing the talented young singer into their group which he would eventually rename the Famous Flames. A demo of the song “Please, Please, Please” ended up in the hands of promoter Ben Bart (Aykroyd) and label owner Syd Nathan (Melamed). Whereas Nathan never really got Brown’s music, Ben recognized that the sounds coming from the single were unique; it’s not about the song, he tries to explain to Nathan who never really gets it.

Brown was something of a control freak and he rebelled at playing along with the status quo. He dealt with venues directly rather than going through a promoter, bringing Bart aboard as an advisor and business manager, allowing him to retain a larger share of the gate at his shows. He is Mr. Entertainment, priding himself on putting on the best shows for his audience and giving everything he had night after night. People began to listen.

Success breeds excess however. Brown would become a drug addict although the movie glosses over this somewhat which would lead to legal troubles that plagued the latter half of his life. He could be mean and abusive which wreaked havoc not only in his personal life but also alienated many of those musicians whose talents helped elevate him to where he was. He demanded absolute control but as Byrd pointed out, he was a genius and it was on his coattails that his band would achieve legendary status but his demeaning treatment of them alienated them.

Taylor opts for an achronological telling of Brown’s story, starting out in 1988, jumping back to 1968 (good God!) and back again to 1939 and up forward 1955. Flashbacks within flashbacks, you might say. Writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth group events in his life thematically rather than chronologically, headlining them with nicknames he would acquire during his career – The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite. and so on. For the most part this works although some of the transitions between time periods are less smooth than others and the linking devices occasionally take us out of the story and make us realize we’re watching someone directing a movie. That’s a big no-no.

Boseman is absolutely incredible here. Richard Corliss of Time magazine has all but handed the Oscar to Boseman and while that may be premature, I do hope that his performance still remains in the memory of Academy members come nomination time. He certainly deserves consideration. While the vocals here are Brown, Boseman not only gets his mannerisms correctly he also manages to recreate Brown’s unique stage movement and presence. It’s a performance that really carries the movie and necessarily so.

Ellis also does a fine job as Byrd, the closest thing to a friend Brown has. Although their relationship was rocky, there was also genuine affection between the two. Ellis and Boseman have a strong chemistry which doesn’t really get enough credit. While this is definitely Boseman’s film, it wouldn’t be as strong without Ellis.

While the movie doesn’t hesitate to portray Brown as a difficult man to get along with, there’s a sense that they’re trying too hard to make a mythology about the man and that sometimes comes off like a child whining too much for recognition. Rather than have him appear to be thinking back on his life before – and sometimes during – his performances, those flashbacks could have been framed differently and more organically rather than framing Brown in heroic poses. We get that he was a genius and don’t need to have his mythic qualities shoved down our throats.

A great biography of James Brown is long overdue and while this isn’t the great film I would have hoped it would be, it is nonetheless a strong movie made stronger by the performances of Boseman and Byrd, along with Aykroyd as a kind of Jewish father figure/rabbi to Brown. Brown was in the eyes of many the personification of Black Power during one of the most turbulent times in our history and while he himself was more concerned with making money entertaining his audiences, he did embrace the importance of black culture and black empowerment in his art and in his life. For most, this will be the closest thing to witnessing a performance by James Brown as they will ever come (although there are many clips of his performances available online and of course some of his concert films available for purchase or streaming) but even Boseman’s performance doesn’t duplicate the raw, sweaty power of a live James Brown performance. His legacy is not just in the records he made but in the millions who fell under his spell at his concerts. You wouldn’t be wrong if you argued that he was the greatest live performer in the history of pop music.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome music. Boseman makes a formidable James Brown.

REASONS TO STAY: Era jumping smacks of “Look Ma, I’m Directing.” Over-mythologizes.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content, drug use and foul language as well as a couple of instances of violence in the form of child and spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd appeared with the real James Brown in The Blues Brothers while Ellis appeared with Brown in Undercover Brother.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ray

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy

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Get Low


Get Low

Robert Duvall goes all Old Testament on an incredulous Lucas Black and a skeptical Bill Murray.

(Sony Classics) Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs, Scott Cooper, Lori Beth Edgeman, Linds Edwards, Andrea Powell, Chandler Riggs, Danny Vinson, Blerim Destani, Andy Stahl. Directed by Aaron Schneider

I think to a certain extent most of us would love to attend our own funerals. After all, it is a time when those who survive us think the best of us; who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall when their friends and loved ones are talking about us from the heart?

Felix Bush (Duvall) is a recluse living in the hills alone in a cabin that he built. All he has is a shotgun, his mule, a wad of cash and forty years of loneliness. One morning Rev. Horton (McRaney), a local pastor, calls on him to alert him that one of his old friends has passed on. Horton is a bit nervous and understandably so; Bush has a reputation for being violent, unpredictable and possibly even Satanic. Horton invites Bush to the funeral, but Felix brushes him off, making it unclear whether or not he’ll show. True to his mercurial nature, he arrives after everyone else has left.

Nonetheless that gets him thinking about his own mortality; he’s not a young man anymore, so he stops to see the good Reverend about arranging his own funeral with a bit of a twist – he wants it thrown while he’s still alive. Horton is a little taken aback by this and Felix storms out, but his proposal is overheard by Buddy Robinson (Black), the assistant to local funeral home director Frank Quinn (Murray).

When Frank hears about the incident from his underling, he is intrigued – by the size of the wad of cash Buddy says he has. Frank is originally from Chicago where, he tells Buddy sourly, people know how to die – they get hit by cars, shot by mobsters or drop down dead in the streets. “We know how to die hereabouts too,” drawls Buddy, “only we’re not in such a hurry to go about it.”

Frank, intimidated by Felix’ reputation, sends Buddy in to see if the hermit is still interested in throwing a funeral for himself and as it turns out, he is – and he and Buddy manage to establish a little bit of a bond. Frank brings Felix to town to work out some of the details – for instance, he wants the funeral to be open to “anybody who has a story to tell about me,” and to entice people to show up, allows people to sign up for a lottery for five dollars; the name that is drawn will inherit Felix’ land, with virgin timber rights and worth thousands of dollars. Felix begins to connect not only with Frank and Buddy, but with Mattie (Spacek), a widow with whom Felix once had a romantic relationship years and years prior.

As Felix begins to return to the world, it becomes clear that he has been holding onto a terrible secret for some forty years and it becomes even more clear that the funeral is not about Felix hearing what other people think about him (he really doesn’t give a damn what other people think) so much as for Felix to get this terrible burden off his chest. To that end, he wants the Reverend Charlie Jackson (Cobbs) to preach at his “funeral party,” mainly because he is the only man alive who knows Jackson’s secret. As the big day gets closer, Felix’ resolve begins to waver and Reverend Jackson shows no interest in helping Felix out. The funeral party is in jeopardy, which would ruin Frank’s business and put the young Buddy out of work, with a wife and new baby to feed.

Get Low

The real Felix "Uncle Bush" Breazeale at his "funeral party" in 1938.

Schneider has had some Oscar experience for some of the short films he’s directed; this is his first full-length feature and it’s an impressive one. The story is based on the real life Felix “Uncle Bush” Brezeale who threw himself a funeral in rural Tennessee in 1938. There was a Reverend Charlie Jackson who preached at that funeral, and as depicted here, there was also a musical ensemble that played for the entertainment of the large crowd that gathered.

However, most of the dramatic action is an invention, particularly concerning Felix’ past. Schneider couldn’t have chosen a better actor for the role than Duvall, one of America’s best living actors. Now pushing 80 years old, Duvall doesn’t appear onscreen nearly as often; this is by far the best role he’s had since 1997’s The Apostle although I saw a lot of his “Lonesome Dove” TV role as Gus McCrae in his Felix Bush – despite the differences in character between the gregarious Gus and the curmudgeonly Felix.

Duvall carries the film for certain, but he is equaled by Murray, who shows the same level of performance as he achieved in Lost in Translation. He plays Frank with typical drollness, delivered with the twinkle of a conman’s eye. Frank is a complicated sort who isn’t quite trustworthy, or at least doesn’t inspire that kind of trust, even among the fairly simple folk of the town. Murray excels at this kind of role, going back to Caddyshack and beyond. Mention needs to be made of Spacek, who gives some of her finest work of the past decade here in a very down-to-earth role. One forgets how good she can be; it’s been a very long time since Coal Miner’s Daughter but when she gets the right role, as she does here, Spacek is as good as they get.

Schneider also enlisted Emmy-winning cinematographer David Boyd (“Deadwood”) to capture the majesty of the hill country in autumn. It’s a beautiful looking film, full of rich browns, muted sepia tones and flickering firelight.

The big secret is a bit of a disappointment; it’s pretty much what you think it is, and an opening prologue will give you all the clues you need to figure it out if you watch carefully, but even given that, Duvall’s delivery of the speech where he discloses the reason he has lived in exile from humanity for 40 years is a powerful, memorable performance.

This is one of those happenstance movies where all the right elements come together and magic happens as a result. The film captures time and place and allows us to dwell there for a short while and on that level can be enjoyed thoroughly. There really isn’t a message here that I could detect other than to let go of your burdens before they become the only thing you can call your own. Still, that’s a plenty good message to me, to which I add another one; if Robert Duvall and Bill Murray are in a movie separately or together, that is a movie worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-worthy performances by Duvall and Murray, while Spacek does her best work in years. Beautiful cinematography of the Georgia hill country and a great sense of place and time make this a magic place to stop for a spell.

REASONS TO STAY: The big reveal of Felix’ secret is a little bit anti-climactic; most everyone will have figured out what it is long before then.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material, having to do with the secret that Felix is holding onto, is probably a bit difficult for kids. There are a few swear words, but by and large this is suitable for teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is loosely based on an incident that occurred in Roane County, Tennessee in 1938, it was filmed in Georgia and is set about ten years earlier.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the gorgeous cinematography deserves a big screen, I would normally say that this limited release gem will be just as nice on the home screen except that a movie like this deserves all the support it can get.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Paul Blart: Mall Cop