Get On Up is a biopic about the legendary James Brown. In part, it is also a biopic about a very appreciative fan, Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones. Jagger produced Get On Up and his hands are all over Get On Up. British musicians have long expressed an honesty and thankfulness about the influence and genius of African American musical artistry, that has eluded many white American musicians, scholars and critics.
“All musical instruments are drums,” says Chadwick Boseman, convincingly portraying James Brown. Words were drums, too, to JB, “The Godfather Of Soul.”
The Beatles, The Stones and a slew of British and American musicians went to the same well or river (The Mississippi) as did JB, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
“Say it plain,” said Malcolm X.
“Say It Loud,” said JB, “I am Black and I am Proud.”
Forever drumming, James Brown’s percussive search for The Beat to change his life and American lives is rooted in Get On Up in JB’s childhood rural Georgia home. Mother, a prostitute, compassionately and beautifully played by Viola Davis, abandons James and, more fundamentally, her abusive husband who beats James for his incessant drumming on the kitchen table.
Jagger’s film musicologically traces JB from Rev. Claude Jeter’s “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” to Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia, What Makes Your Big Head So Hard" to a 1964 concert where promoters dissed JB by bringing Jagger on stage as the show-closer and JB taught Jagger a life-changing theatrical lesson.
Personally, the last time I spoke to JB, he was on his way to jail in South Carolina in 1988—the shotgun and police chase incident for which he was convicted are in the film. The last time I saw JB, he was in a white horse-drawn hearse carriage, rolling along Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, carrying JB past the Schomburg Center on his way to the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street for a final farewell in 2006. Chadwick Boseman was then student theatre director for the Schomburg Center's Junior Scholars program. Boseman, impressive as Jackie Robinson in 42, is more impressive and extraordinary as James Brown.
Borrowing advice from JB, who was always drumming and sermonizing: If anything bad has ever happened to you or got you down, Get On Up is your movie.