Tate Taylor’s Get on Up starts off with a literal bang. We first meet James Brown (as portrayed by Chadwick Boseman) while he is wielding a shotgun and preaching about the best practices for using someone else’s bathroom. An idiosyncratic start to a film about the Godfather of Soul, sure, but it works to show how the mighty may have (temporarily) fallen.
Brown is clearly a charming and charismatic man (two traits that are played to the hilt by Boseman), but after a rough childhood in the rural outskirts of Georgia and a meteoric rise to fame, it is clear Mr. Brown is struggling with some very real demons. Get on Up aims to show us why, but falters along the way.
Growing up in a broken home where love and violence were often one and the same, Brown’s father (Lennie James) runs off his mother (Viola Davis) and then gives Brown to the town’s madam Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). Brown learns crowd-pleasing showmanship bringing in business to Aunt Honey’s, but thanks to an eye for the finer things (and no way to afford them), Brown eventually finds himself locked up in jail with no hope for parole. Brown may get frustrated when things do not go his way, but he never gets down on himself, and even in jail finds himself drawn to what makes him feel good: music.
Thanks to a brawl that breaks out when a gospel group performs at the jail, Brown meets musician Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and the two quickly start up a friendship that would change Brown’s life. From here, Get on Up finds itself toggling between Brown’s childhood and his rapid path to fame, painting the picture of a true tortured artist, but Taylor’s fractured narrative structure as we jump from past to present is choppy instead of engaging. This, along with Brown’s tendency to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the camera (or wink at it), completely disrupts the narrative flow instead of adding to it.
Taylor wisely keeps Brown on stage throughout the majority of the film, exhibiting a true powerhouse in his ability to connect with a crowd. Boseman brings the enigmatic Brown to life, impressing with how he embraces Brown’s different phases and looks (which the make-up department deserves applause for) without losing the character. Whether he is scaring people with a shotgun or tantalizing them on stage, Boseman makes sure Brown’s uncanny, force of nature personality is present at all times.
But it is his relationship with Byrd that shows the true Brown, demons and all. Standing by Brown through the ups and downs, Ellis’ Byrd delivers a layered performance that makes his relationship with Brown the most compelling part of Get on Up. After Brown laughs off Byrd’s own musical ambition, the two find themselves coming to verbal blows as their long held grievances are finally aired. Displaying surprising degrees of anger and hurt, Boseman and Ellis’ performances make you feel the true weight and history of their friendship, even as it begins to crumble around them.
Get on Up is at its best when Taylor slows things down and takes you into Brown’s head by showing how he heard music. After a boxing match in his youth, Brown finds himself captivated by the band, and watching how he changes the beat and adds an infectious rhythm to the band’s song in his head gracefully demonstrates Brown’s natural talent (without having Brown himself turn to the camera to tell you about it).
Even though Boseman does not actually sing in the film (lip syncing to Brown’s songs instead) he delivers performances that are wholly believable. The one misstep is when these performances are juxtaposed with the real life footage, undercutting Boseman’s ability to be Brown within the story. Composer Thomas Newman creates a score that plays to the emotional beats of the film, but Get on Up is unquestionably The James Brown Show, and the film’s soundtrack refuses to let up as the funk drives things speedily and bumpily along.
The film is filled with an impressive supporting cast – including Davis, Spencer, Jill Scott as Brown’s second wife DeeDee, Fred Melamed as the head of Brown’s record label, Dan Aykroyd as Brown’s booking agent – but it is new comer Brandon Smith as a young Little Richard that steals the show. Going toe-to-toe with Boseman, Smith’s Richard matches Brown’s over-the-top personality and passion for music, making it clear why each became stars. In one of the film’s best scenes, Brown and Richard talk in front of the restaurant where Richard (donning a perfectly styled hair net) works about their futures. It’s pure fun to watch Boseman and Smith recreate the magic of two bombastic artists on the brink of stardom.
James Brown lived an interesting life, but he always knew how to “get on up” and keep going, no matter what obstacles may have stood in his way. Unfortunately, an awkwardly structured first act and a overly long runtime make this movie about his life a slightly disjointed journey, but Boseman’s performance make it worth the trip. James Brown was a force to be reckoned with and Get on Up shows how it was a blessing, and a curse, to be a part of his world.
The Upside: Boseman succeeds in embracing the bombastic Brown; solid supporting cast with stand out performances from Ellis and Smith; a funky, soul driven soundtrack keeps things moving from start to finish.
The Downside: Awkward narrative structure full of odd transitions; a tonally confusing opening; unnecessary breaking of the fourth wall when Boseman talks to the camera.
On the Side: Mick Jagger is one of the film’s producers and look out for “The Man” singer Aloe Blacc as one of Brown’s original band members.