July 16th, 2019

Get on Up ***1/2


I don’t know you well enough to guess what your favorite movie is. But I think I can guess what it isn’t.

Your favorite movie isn’t a celebrity biopic.

Biographical movies about celebrities are not destined to be great films. They are based on the flawed notion that celebrities are more interesting than us because they are in show business. And that just isn’t true.

There’s a reason why we only browse through “People” magazine while waiting to have a cavity filled at the dentist’s office. Movie stars and pop singers are generally more beautiful than we are. But they aren’t any smarter, deeper, or more fascinating.

“US Weekly” has an idiotic section called “Just Like Us.” It is nothing but photographs of celebrities doing mundane activities – like Katie Holmes pushing a shopping cart to her car, or Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel wiping ice cream off her daughter’s face in the park. I guess we’re supposed to marvel at the news that celebrities are regular people. But why on earth wouldn’t they be?

“Get on Up” had all the makings of another mediocre biopic. It’s about a singer who’s well-known but nobody really listens to (when was the last time you or anyone you know downloaded a James Brown song on iTunes?). And it’s a classic rags to riches to arrogance to drug abuse story that you’ve seen a dozen times before.

Super cool and openly gay director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) took a huge risk and tossed the usual script for a biopic in the trash. Instead of slavishly sticking to history and truth, he made stuff up. Instead of filming a biography, he made a movie.

There are some terrific scenes that almost certainly didn’t happen in real life. There’s one where 8-year-old James Brown steals the shoes off a lynched man and then runs home just in time to watch his mother walk out on his gun-brandishing father.

There’s an amazing scene in which a flirtatiously flamboyant Little Richard educates 20-year-old James Brown about how to deal with “white devil” record executives.

It doesn’t bother me that these are made-up scenarios. That doesn’t make the film inauthentic; it makes it better. “Get on Up” isn’t about James Brown; it is about an awesome, larger-than-life character inspired by James Brown.

Tate Taylor finds the perfect way of dealing with the fact that his protagonist is an arrogant megalomaniac who had at least nine children with several different women and served time in prison in the 40s, 50s, 80s, and 90s. He doesn’t ever try to defend The Godfather of Soul or turn him into a likable guy. “Get on Up” presents James Brown as a force of nature who succeeded as an entertainer and a business man, but nothing more.

Nobody’s favorite movie is a biopic. But as biopics go, “Get on Up” is one of the best.

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