Feel good movie
The Godfather of Soul gets a rollicking but milquetoast biopic with Get on Up, showcasing a dynamite Chadwick Boseman as James Brown. The movie is entertaining, and it does flirt with the more controversial aspects of Brown’s life, but it plays it a little too safe.
A true telling of James Brown’s often insane life would command an R-rating and be a real powder keg of a movie. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) doesn’t avoid the domestic violence, drugs and brushes with the law that were mainstays in Brown’s life, but he does treat those aspects as a bit of a side note. The film’s focus stays primarily on Brown’s tough upbringing and his music.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does result in what feels like a missed opportunity for greatness. The movie, which is not told chronologically, starts promisingly as we see the events leading up to the infamous police chase that landed Brown in jail for three years. Boseman is nothing short of amazing in these scenes as the somewhat crazy, older Brown, brandishing a shotgun and seeking out the person who dared to use his bathroom to take a dump.
The film then commences to bounce around in time, showing Brown as a young child in Augusta, Georgia, all the way up to his latter years as a performer. This narrative technique is certainly fun, giving the movie a sense of “anything can happen” and making it feel far from routine. Boseman even breaks the fourth wall to chat with the audience, something that’s a bit jarring at first but eventually works.
The film highlights many of the legendary concerts from Brown’s career, including his groundbreaking first concert at the Apollo and the healing experience that was a Boston concert shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King. For most of these scenes, Boseman lip-synchs to Brown’s voice, but he does sing a few passages in the film using his own vocals. Taylor puts it all together seamlessly.
As for the physicality of his performance, Boseman is a kinetic marvel. He becomes James Brown, immaculately recreating the dance moves and stage theatrics that made him one of the all-time great performers. His method of delivering dialogue is, quite appropriately, sometimes intelligible. Brown had a tendency to mumble and ramble as he got older, and Boseman doesn’t shy away from that. Somehow, I managed to understand everything he said.
Viola Davis is good in her few scenes as Brown’s troubled mother. Dan Aykroyd and Craig Robinson certainly impress as Brown’s manager Ben Bart and saxophonist Maceo Parker. The supporting cast’s most valuable player is Nelsan Ellis as longtime Brown sideman Bobby Byrd. His role amounts to the voice of reason in the madness that was often Brown’s life.
This story has taken a long time getting to the big screen, with everybody from Wesley Snipes to Eddie Murphy rumored to play Brown. Spike Lee was attached to direct at one point. He was also attached to direct a Jackie Robinson biopic. The eventual 42 was not directed by Lee, but did star Boseman. I guess this sort of makes Boseman an enemy of Spike Lee by default.
If you go to this movie to see somebody kick some major ass with the James Brown dance moves, Get On Up definitely delivers. If you’re looking for a biopic that captures his amazingly crazy life, you’ll just have to keep waiting. I’m no James Brown expert, but what I do know tells me this movie doesn’t even scratch the surface.