60s soul is one of my absolute favorite genres of music. It feels utterly genuine, which each blaring trumpet riff and towering scream seeming to explode from the artists. Obviously, James Brown is at the forefront of that era, so at the outset, the prospect of a film based on his life would be a very exciting prospect for me. However, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Get On Up. Entering the theater, I did not have positive feelings for either of it’s main creative forces. I found Chadwick Boseman to be utterly underwhelming in 42, in which he starred as Jackie Robinson, and thought that director Tate Taylor’s previous film ‘The Help’ to be obscenely overrated. Riddled with cliches, sanitized storytelling, and over the top performances, I could not have been more baffled by it’s success. Even so, I decided to give this a chance, and hope for the best. For the sake of a little suspense I’ll just say this, somebody has definitely redeemed themselves here.
Get On Up nonlinearly chronicles the life story of James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) from his childhood, until late into his career. We watch as he suffers a troubled childhood due to the abandonment of his mother (Viola Davis) and father (Lennie James), forms a bond with fellow musician Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), and creates an entirely new musical sound ultimately rising to meteoric fame. While Brown has everything he could ever need, his arrogance is his greatest hindrance, creating rifts with everyone who may have supported him on his journey.
Starting off on a positive note, I could not have been more impressed with Chadwick Boseman’s performance here. Essentially, he spends two and a half hours making me feel like a complete idiot for talking so much smack about him before. His portrayal of Brown is so accurate and committed that it’s a little scary. In static scenes, he vocally channels Brown to a tee, while managing to not making him into a simple caricature. Sure, he has a persona that he puts on around others, but there are plenty of moments we get to see him for the scared, vulnerable man he really is. He’s a man fueled by a never ending ego of his own fabrication. The musical moments are almost more impressive. While we don’t hear Boseman’s voice (Brown’s original recordings are used), it still feels almost seamless, as his endless physicality fills the stage with energy. Every drop of sweat on his face feels earned as he throws himself into these dance routines. It’s an absolutely remarkable piece of acting.
The other performers are also fairly solid. Ellis in particular is very good as Byrd, Brown’s borderline unhealthily loyal supporter. While the two really have a poisonous friendship, he makes it easy to see how much Byrd truly cares for Brown. Dan Aykroyd is typically fun as Ben Bart, Brown’s manager, and Viola Davis also has a couple very powerful moments as Brown’s mother. Nobody really holds a candle to Boseman, but that’s partially because the supporting characters are not as well written as they could be.
Unfortunately, what ultimately derails the film is Tate Taylor’s direction. While this is certainly an improvement from The Help in some aspects, there are brand new problems that unfold. For starters, the nonlinear story structure feels downright unnecessary. There’s no rhyme of reason to the order of the scenes, so the film just feels like a series of disjointed sequences that slowly tell the story of this man’s life. I emphasize the word slowly, because like The Help, this film is twenty to thirty minutes too long, with plenty of repetitive moments that could have been lost. After a while, we get it, James Brown was arrogant, just end already. This becomes especially problematic when the movie gets heavy handed, which is often. Several times, things just devolve into la la land, as Brown reflects on his life with random audio clips, and dreamlike flashbacks needlessly fill time. Also, for some reason, James Brown breaks the fourth wall from time to time, a technique that never really goes anywhere other to just clear up a detail here and there.
On the positive end, there certainly is some energy in the scenes themselves. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Taylor masterfully shoots all of the concert scenes here. While the effect of replacing Boseman’s voice with Brown’s feels jarring at first, the way Taylor precisely photographs Boseman’s movements makes it become almost unnoticeable by the film’s end. The interactions between the characters are also filled with snappy dialogue, and the production design is impeccable.
Overall, Get On Up is an average film with a great movie hiding in there somewhere. Boseman gives it everything he has, giving the best music biopic performance since Jamie Foxx in Ray, but the plodding structure, and needless length ultimately lets him down. Taylor feels too self conscious here, trying too hard to make a great film, instead of just trusting the material to form a great story. It’s not a total loss, but the godfather of soul definitely deserved a little better.