At the beginning of the James Brown biopic, Get On Up, a strung-out Brown (Chadwick Boseman) walks into an insurance seminar in 1988 with a shotgun and causes a scene because someone used his private bathroom. Just moments later, Brown and his band are seen flying into Vietnam in the 60s, during the height of his popularity, to entertain the troops and their plane takes enemy fire. To further complicate things, James then says how influential he is right into the camera. So, in about the first twenty minutes, there are two extremes, a two-decade time jump, and the breakdown of the fourth wall. Clearly, the film can go anywhere. And it does.
Playing more like an episodic mini-series than a movie, the 138 minute film is broken down into sections like, “1949, The Music Box,” “1964, The Famous Flames,” etc. Professionally speaking, some of Mr. Brown’s career highlights captured in the film are his Boston, Massachusetts, performance right after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the recording of his iconic Live at the Apollo album in 1963, and his upstaging of the Rolling Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show. All of these events, among others depicted, are worthy of great attention, but not all of them are given the treatment they deserve. It just goes to show that the James Brown story can’t truly be contained in the confines of a single motion picture.
Additionally, the film goes back numerous times to scenes from Brown’s childhood (the young James Brown is played by twins Jordan and Jamarion Scott) where he lived in extreme poverty, experienced racism in the Jim Crow South, was abandoned by his mother (Viola Davis), abused by his father (Lennie James), and raised by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) in a brothel. These scenes are critical because, while they don’t in any way excuse Brown’s repugnant behavior as a grown man, they do help shed light on some of his many conflicting actions.
Watching Boseman as James Brown is a captivating experience. His performance transcends one of mere imitation, and finds him truly becoming “The Godfather of Soul.” With the exception of singing [the original recordings were superbly remixed by the film’s Executive Producer, Mick Jagger], everything is there: the gravelly voice, the flawless dance moves, the mannerisms, and, of course, the attitude. Another actor who deserves great praise is Nelsan Ellis, of True Blood fame, who plays Brown’s close friend and bandmate, Bobby Byrd. Fortunately, for the sake of Ellis’ contribution, he is one of the few characters that James really connects with and so he is constant through most of the film. Dan Aykroyd, who appeared with the real James Brown in both of The Blues Brothers movies, also gives a memorable supporting performance as Ben Bart, the president of Universal Attractions.
Get On Up is not unlike the band that James performed with. They’re both lively productions that are fine tuned to perfection, but inevitably struggle at times because they’re trying to do so much at once. To the film’s credit, it makes a deliberate effort to shy away from linear story-telling and doesn’t underestimate the audience. However, it still fails to come together to cohesively tell the story of “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” for the masses. It does though fantastically depict a tortured soul who found redemption through music and helped change the world around him in the process. And for that, it’s definitely worth the price of admission!
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
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