Review: Get on Up

Get on Up is a decent biopic on the life of ‘The Godfather of Soul’ James Brown that becomes a must-see if for no other reason than to witness the dynamic, heed the movie title and cheer in appreciation performance of star Chadwick Boseman.

With a shaky, distracting narrative and curiously detached look at Brown’s life, the film has a number of flaws, but Boseman’s ferocious, fearless take on one of the most influential musicians of all time is the best cinematic equivalent to a one-man show you’ll see all year.

D. Stevens/Universal Pictures James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) performs.
D. Stevens/Universal Pictures
James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) performs.

Boseman hits the ideal mark of channeling without imitating Brown allowing the viewer to just take in his performance instead of comparing every little line delivery or gesture to the real deal. Whether playing a split-popping teen or more reserved senior citizen Brown, Boseman displays a confidence that he can easily step into Brown’s shoes without getting lost in the role.

Sibling screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John Henry-Butterworth use a non-linear storytelling format that jumps through random periods of Brown’s life.

D. Stevens/Universal Pictures DeeDee Brown (Jill Scott) and James Brown (Chadwick Boseman).
D. Stevens/Universal Pictures
DeeDee Brown (Jill Scott) and James Brown (Chadwick Boseman).

One moment may feature an aged, past-his prime Brown and the next scene shows young James (Jamarion Scott) watching his parents (Lennie James and Viola Davis) getting into yet another argument.

Director Tate Taylor’s (The Help) storytelling perspective is a bit disjointed and frustrating at times trying to comprehend. It also negates the importance of supporting cast members like Dan Akyroyd, who plays Brown’s manager Ben Bart, and Jill Scott (Baggage Claim) who barely has any lines as Brown’s wife DeeDee. Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) has the most significant role as Brown’s longtime friend/confidant Bobby Byrd and provides the film’s other solid performance.

D. Stevens/Universal Pictures Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) and James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) in "Get on Up".
D. Stevens/Universal Pictures
Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) and James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) in “Get on Up”.

The pre-credit notes say that Brown was one of the most influential and sampled artist in music history, but Taylor doesn’t delve on Brown’s impact nearly enough.

Taylor spends too much time humanizing the legend without showing what made Brown so legendary —a key architect in funk/rap music, owner of 16 No. 1 singles on Billboard’s R&B charts and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member to name a few. Tate doesn’t do enough to make Brown seem any larger than life than the fictional character in Inside Llewyn Davis.

D. Stevens/Universal Pictures Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) perform in "Get on Up"
D. Stevens/Universal Pictures
Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) perform in “Get on Up”

One of the film’s best moments occurs early on when Brown is asked to close for the young Rolling Stones, whose eyes light up watching Brown dazzle the crowd.

D. Stevens/Universal Pictures Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis)
D. Stevens/Universal Pictures
Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis)

It’s one of the film’s rare glimpses into showing the kind of influence Brown had on his peers and the countless musical acts that would follow him. More of those Forrest Gump style encounters would have been welcome. After all, Michael Jackson called Brown his ultimate idol.

The film greatly benefits from having access to Brown’s music catalog so audiences can listen to all of Brown’s biggest hits rather than the filmmakers being forced to use stand-in songs. Those scenes are the ones Taylor seems most emboldened and they have an energy that fully conveys Brown’s power as a performer and Boseman is scorching in every one of the musical acts.

In 2013, Boseman was in an incredibly packed field of quality performances which meant his turn as Jackie Robinson in 42 received praise, but not enough to earn an award nomination.

Universal Pictures Chadwick Boseman as James Brown.
Universal Pictures
Chadwick Boseman as James Brown.

This time, Boseman should absolutely be honored with accolades while audiences will be rewarded with one of the year’s finest performances that takes the film to essential viewing territory.

Rating: 8 out of 10

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