Movie Review - Get On Up

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown
It probably wasn't Tate Taylor's intention, but like Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra, this is a biographical film where the end result leans more toward dislike of the subject or protagonist. In this case, the musician in question is James Brown, a man of many monikers, most notably "the Godfather of Soul." A title card in the end refers to Brown's music being some of the most sampled, having influenced a generation or more. Unlike Liberace, Brown wasn't really an instrumentalist, and even less of a technician when it came to the craft of music. He wasn't even much of a lyricist, as is pointed out. So, what was the draw? His voice, I suppose. His boldness, his audacity! His sheer force of will! Of course, there was also his dance moves.

Chadwick Boseman plays James Brown, nailing the speaking voice and attitude. Boseman previously played real-life baseball player Jackie Robinson, despite looking nothing like Robinson and certainly not possessing the level of beauty of Robinson. Same goes for James Brown.

Yet, Boseman makes you forget the dissimilarities in appearance the moment he takes the microphone and the moment you see him do Brown's almost patented split. The stage performance that Boseman embodies or highly imitates is bravura.

It's also mostly hilarious. This movie could almost be a parody. The first time we see Boseman as Brown is as the iconic singer was in 1988 wearing a green track suit, driving a red pickup truck and brandishing a shotgun. His beef is ignited by someone lighting up his bathroom with a bowel movement. It pulls in the audience with a laugh.

Yet, the location and context are never explained. Why James Brown is there or is even in that position is never explained. The movie immediately starts quantum leaping around Brown's life line. There are flashbacks to Brown's childhood in the 1930's, but the general trajectory is to follow Brown's rise to fame starting in the late 40's and continuing into the 70's.

Boseman as Brown breaks the fourth wall and talks directly into the camera. He literally winks at the lens. An example where Brown explains payola feels very reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, and like DiCaprio's character Jordan Belfort, the more it goes along the more I disliked James Brown.

The film recognizes this, as members of Brown's band complain about his behavior and eventually leave him. The only exception is Bobby Byrd, played by Nelsan Ellis. Byrd stays with Brown no matter how horrible he treats people. Eventually, a band member, played by Craig Robinson, asks Byrd why he stays. Byrd's answer is unsatisfying because it makes him seem either desperate or pathetic.

Ellis' character is almost the equivalent of Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra. Yet, Damon's character puts up more of a fight than Ellis. Damon's character did seem to have a love for Liberace. I'm not sure I bought the love between Byrd and Brown, platonic or otherwise.

But, speaking of love otherwise, the most intriguing scene was between Brown and Little Richard, played by Brandon Smith. There was a weird chemistry between Boseman and Smith. At one point, I thought they might kiss. That one scene had more intrigued to follow Little Richard who was gay rather than Brown.

It's not as if Brown had much chemistry with the women who plays his girlfriends or wives. It's mainly because the women don't get much to do. Jill Scott plays Brown's second wife, and the only thing she gets to do, besides dancing in the background, is get beat up.

We assume Brown's abusive nature comes from his father. The film lays out parallels between Brown and his father, but there is never any acknowledgment of his bad behavior. There is never any acknowledgment of stage behaviors either like the infamous cape being put on him and then thrown off.

The non-linear, quantum leaping is entertaining, if not a little disconcerting. It becomes a problem with regard to Brown's mom, played by Viola Davis. She comes back into Brown's life and all we see is her walk into his dressing room. Immediately, the film cuts away to something else.

The movie doesn't return to his mom until the very end of the film. By that point, you forget Brown even had a mom. I get why Taylor does it. Brown's mom abandoned him, so Taylor saves his reunion to coincide with the abandonment and possible reunion with another person in Brown's life. This tactic though is more heavy-handed than anyything else in this highly manipulative movie.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 18 mins.


Popular Posts