Get on Up is a cinematic biopic that chronicles the life and times of American music icon James “The Godfather of Soul” Brown. Starting in 1939, when Brown was a child growing up in poverty in Georgia, the movie follows young James (Chadwick Boseman) as he is arrested at age 17, leading to a chance encounter with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). Bobby, immediately recognizing James’ natural musical talent, befriends him and recruits him to serve as a singer in Bobby’s gospel group, Gospel Starlighters – the first step on James’ (and Bobby’s) journey to music stardom.
However, as James skyrockets to fame (with Bobby holding on for dear life), he faces obstacles in both his professional and personal life. That includes him stirring up controversy, as a result of his approach to the business side of the music industry; finding his place in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s; and dealing with his own personal demons, which include being haunted by his mother (Viola Davis) having left James (and his abusive father) as a child. However, through it all time and time again, James proves that he is indeed willing to pay the cost to be the boss.
Director Tate Taylor (The Help) teamed up with screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Fair Game, Edge of Tomorrow) – who share story credit with Steven Baigelman (Brother’s Keeper) – in order to bring James Brown’s tumultuous, unpredictable, and otherwise eventful life to the big screen. The final result is a solid film that really comes alive when it breaks away from storytelling convention; for the most part, however, Get on Up avoids straying too far away from the trajectory of the average decent, if unremarkable, Hollywood musician biopic.
What elevates the film above the recent biographical musical Jersey Boys (but without quite reaching “excellence”) is the central performance by Chadwick Boseman, who broke out last year with his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in the memoir 42. With Get on Up, Boseman has proven that he’s not just a flash in the pan, either, as he handles everything from Brown’s legendary dance moves to the man’s volatile personality with energy and panache to spare – with his performance never coming off as an imitation or caricature, either. Indeed, Boseman’s subtlety and nuance allows the film’s big emotional moments to play out better (and far less melodramatic) than they might’ve otherwise.
As mentioned before, Get on Up essentially uses the same road map as many a musician biopic has before it; sometimes, the film even hits the same plot points as movies like Ray and Walk the Line, beat for beat. However, Taylor and his writers – working in tandem with editor Michael McCusker (who also edited Walk the Line, as it were) – occasionally enliven the proceedings by juxtaposing developments in Brown’s life with larger historical events (ex. the Vietnam War) in a way that enhances the film’s substance. Stylisitically, more jarring cuts are sometimes implemented to similar effect, along with other techniques (such as having Brown address the camera directly) that help the proceedings avoid feeling too monotonous. Arguably, such semi-experimental moments are when Get on Up feel the most true to Brown’s innovator spirit.
That same goes for the visual choices made by Taylor and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt (who also collaborated on The Help). Their use of lighting and colors aids in distinguishing the film’s different settings in time (ex. rich earthy tones in the Georgia scenes), while the duo also produce several invigorating musical numbers through dynamic camera movement, composition, and occasional use of montage to also reflect on elements of Brown’s character at the same time. On the other hand, Taylor’s direction tends to feel less confident when it comes to touching upon the truly prickly aspects of Brown’s life (see: when he commits acts of domestic abuse); on the whole, the film only tends to skim the surface of these issues, at most – for better or worse, that is.
Get on Up is foremost Boseman’s show, but he is surrounded by a talented supporting cast. The most noteworthy example is Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, whose relationship with James Brown quietly brings some needed heart to the film; in many ways, it forms the emotional core of the story. Similarly, Dan Aykroyd portrays Brown’s agent Ben Bart as a “large personality,” so to speak, but also brings enough humanity to the table to make their interactions emotionally meaningful by the end. Meanwhile, The Help costars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer provide welcome gravitas to their brief appearances as Brown’s mother and aunt, respectively – and other familiar faces that pop up along the way (Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, etc.) likewise do fine work.
The short of it: Get on Up has elements of greatness (see: creative filmmaking choices and its leading man’s excellent performance), but ends up being just one step above a standard musician biopic as result of its fairly derivative narrative. All the same, anyone who’s interested in taking in a movie this weekend, but needs a break from the summer blockbuster offerings, should consider giving Get on Up a shot.
Get on Up is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 138 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations.