In an era where there was no Youtube, Twitter, DVR, or Facebook, James Brown became a household name. Not to mention the rest of the issues that the Godfather of Soul music had to deal with during the 1960’s and 70’s, it’ s understandable why this towering figure would get the biopic treatment. While the movie as a whole may not have been memorable, Chadwick Boseman’s embodiment of Brown creates a clear picture of how special he was and why he should be remembered.
Director Tate Taylor gives a non-linear look at Brown’s life, jumping from post fame to childhood and everything in between. In some ways it serves the film well because the style allows us to see the fractured character of Brown. It shows who he was as an entertainer and what created him almost simultaneously. At the same time, the style cuts the film’s foot off. At times it jumps around at warp speed, cutting to the next scene without bringing closure to the one it just left. Taylor has Brown break the fourth wall, which was unnecessary for most of the film. The one time it does work well is when the usually verbose and confident Brown hits his wife DeeDee (Jill Scott) and can barely bring himself to look at the audience.
The history lesson is there, but the movie could have benefited from better storytelling. We’ve seen the poor boy does good against all odds before. Perhaps the non-linear style would have been fresh if not for the overt melodrama in his childhood scenes that were clearly pushing points home.
It’s undeniable that anytime triple threat Chadwick Boseman is on the screen he steals the show. I was afraid that he may be pigeonholed in the biopic lead after this film, but I think it does just the opposite. Boseman has proven with this film that his range stretches from the humble, silent strength of Jackie Robinson to the loud, egotistical showmanship of James Brown. Boseman’s footwork as the man who laid the groundwork for Prince, Michael Jackson, Chris Brown (the list goes on) is incredible! I’ll be surprised if an Oscar nomination isn’t given for his performance this year.
In truth, the film is all about Boseman (which makes sense it is James Brown’s biopic) but it doesn’t allow supporting characters to show their skills. The familiar faces of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott, Dan Akroyd and Fred Melamed are stars in the shadow of Boseman in this film, only used to get him through time. Perhaps Nelsan Ellis’s performance as Brown’s long time friend Bobby Byrd is the one performance that gets fully realized. Byrd’s loyalty to the talented but self-absorbed Brown gives a real glimpse into a character study of a dream deferred that’s heart felt.
Overall “Get On Up” is a decent depiction of an American icon. Boseman’s performance is the best thing to come out of the film, and because of it the generation who sees this film that grew up with/watching James Brown will enjoy it and those who came after should find a new found respect for him. You can see the influence of Brown in music and entertainers from his time to the present. Get on up and go see the film if you haven’t already!