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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Get On Up (2014)

An entertaining and instructive biopic of the trendsetting singer James Brown.  I was lucky enough to see him in 1981, which was the end of his long and influential career.  There are two things that are unfortunate about it.  The most damning is that the opening scene is focused on at point in his career when he was smoking PCP and acting erratically.  That sets a poor tone for an otherwise reasonable film about an iconic figure in music.  The other is that while it leaves out a lot, it focuses a bit too much on his difficult childhood and leaves out important things, all the while being too long.  A miniseries might have been a better choice.

Like many biopics,  this one hits the highs and lows of Brown's life and career.  He was a man who wrote civil rights anthems and suffered through a Jim Crow South, yet who considered former segregationist Strom Thurmond a grandfather figure. Exploring complexities like that aren’t always doable in a short time and the movie falls short of perfection, to be sure, but is entertaining and educating none-the-less. The criticism that it prefers a safer, more sanitized James Brown is accurate, although his physical abuse of his wife is portrayed. What is left out is how samples of Brown’s music formed the cornerstone of hip-hop from old school to gangsta rap. The movie isn’t really interested in exploring how important Brown’s music was to any of the numerous styles it influenced, but rather focusing on the man, what formed him, and how he turned out.

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