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Right Kind of Reverence

Biopic on James Brown gets it right

Darleen Ortega | 8/6/2014, 11:46 a.m.
From the sheer energy in the musical performances, to capturing some of the harder parts of the cultural icon, the ...
Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in the biopic ‘42,’ returns to the screen to star as James Brown in the film ‘Get On Up’ from the director of ‘The Help.’ Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

The seeds for Brown's musical genius, his ego, his frequent violence, and his antisocial behavior are evident in his childhood of extreme poverty, domestic abuse, and abandonment by his parents. He lived his early years hungry and abused in a shack in South Carolina, then spent much of his childhood in a brothel in Augusta, Georgia, and was in prison by the age of 16 for theft of a suit. The film wisely doesn't lay on those connections too thickly; it shuffles the time sequence, returns to certain pivotal scenes (like the PCP-fueled arrest from the '80s) a handful of times, and then lets them go. The effect is to toss up those disparate elements of Brown's life and to suggest the connections between them but not push the point too hard.

The same is true for his musical influences. The film depicts signs of a rhythmic drive early in childhood, and also a scene when he walks into a revival meeting as a child and is drawn into the music that absorbs all the participants. The vibe is perfect -- a preacher with an elaborate hairstyle and everyone in white suits and dresses, worshipping with their whole bodies. The scene has a mythical quality that captures the sense of such a meeting but also the sense of how it might be remembered by a child.

Occasionally the shuffling between time periods can be disconcerting, as can instances when Brown speaks directly to the camera. I'm not sure those risks always pay off. But, in the end, most of it does. The elements of Brown's history, his hardships, and his foibles -- they are all here, and all must be functioning somehow to drive the man. For the most part, the film wisely backs off from wrapping it up too neatly.

And a certain truth emerges. As Brown himself puts it, "Nobody helped James Brown" as a young person. Nobody taught him the rules, though his experience taught him the rules weren't in his favor. His tremendous drive pulled him out of his dire circumstances, and taught him to listen to the drumbeat that he could hear, undistracted by attachment to anyone else's idea of how music should sound or how things should go. His was the wisdom, and the genius, of the disenfranchised. This film makes you feel it.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. You can find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.