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Get on Up: From Rhythm to Richness
James Brown biopic grasps American culture; but poverty-porn doc Rich Hill just condescends.


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Taylor’s rapport with women creates a wondrous range of temperaments: At first Viola Davis, as Brown’s mother, does her usual variations on misery, nearly sinking the film into condescension. But the anguished role gets worked out smartly, its mawkishness toughly contrasted by Octavia Spencer as a sexual businesswoman telling Brown his destiny. Brown’s seduction by two different women — slinky Yvonne Fair (Tika Sumpter) and voluptuous wife DeeDee (Jill Scott) — summarizes the erotic passages of Brown’s life in an amazing rhythmic montage, the paradigm for Tate’s juxtaposing narrative concept.

The rhythms of Get on Up vary due to the difficulty of the story’s personal and cultural insights. But the importance of rhythm is emphasized through Brown’s precise expressions: “Funk is in the bag, the bag is in the bass, the bass never changes,” “The groove is solid; it’s inside you,” and “If it sound good and it feel good then it’s musical. Now play it the way I told you!”

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These explanations cannot be underestimated. They describe the avant-garde genius of songs like “Cold Sweat,” Brown’s superb blues, and so many others. The percussive power and originality of Brown’s songs steamroll through a complex story and complicated issues like no film since Spielberg’s The Color Purple. Every point on art, race — even Brown’s political gestures, from White House visits to the recording of “I’m Black and I’m Proud” — is shown with clarity and impact. Envious Spike Lee (who was originally slated to direct the film) will never admit how good this is. But it’s unlikely that a livelier American movie will be made this year.

***

Although Get on Up is unsubtle and has an artificial look, its understanding of Brown’s bootstrap struggle has more social relevance and political realism than the new poverty-porn flick, Rich Hill. This documentary look at poor and deprived white teens in Missouri is way too estheticized, with music and images designed to make poetry out of misery. It’s another film where the makers, Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, exploit suffering from behind an emotionally distant digital camera.

Hank Williams songs are prominent, as if hillbilly depression still rules in an America that has stopped working for so many people — just a small portion of freedom in a country whose pop culture (symbolized by one youth’s Family Guy T-shirt) cynically mocks them. Various kinds of mental disturbance (among parents and kids) combine with physical abuse and pathetic hope. The filmmakers’ concept means more to them than these people whose lives they invade. It’s a variation on the obscene ’90s movies Hoop Dreams, Gummo, Kids, and Julian Donkey Boy, but it shows no awareness of David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), a beautiful and moving fiction about the same subject.

Pretending to show income inequality, Rich Hill (irony anyone?) is about the pure disadvantages that nobody, especially filmmakers, will do anything about. This is the kind of movie that makes you angry at everything from indie film condescension and festival programmers to critics/shills and distributors, all protecting their own system of privileges.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.



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