Get On Up tells the life story of James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) from his childhood of deep poverty and neglect to his legendary achievements in music and popular culture. The film gives little exposition, opting for a near-collage of his life events, rather than a chronological account of what happened. In this way, the film’s approach to biography seems more like an impressionist painting than a realist portrait. The movie aims to capture the spirit of Brown and his life, but may leave those set on the facts looking for more. More than anything, I think Get On Up portrays a sort of cult of personality around James Brown and how James Brown himself was the chief worshiper.
I think biopics can get really slow in the middle, as not all parts of life are very interesting. In contrast, Get On Up has an almost manic pace to it, moving quickly between past and present. The film attempts to connect hard moments from his youth to Brown’s work ethic and emotional isolation without the use of speeches or obvious ah-hah moments. Some of these scenes, especially toward the end of the film, feel a little heavy-handed, but over all the patchwork gives the story depth and texture without spoon-feeding the audience. The film also uses a variety of techniques that keep the energy of the film up and the narrative focused on the personality of James Brown. For example, in several scenes, Brown breaks the fourth wall, directly addressing or looking at the audience, tacitly asking us if we see what he has to put up with or giving other knowing glances. In one scene, Brown gets up from a conversation with his manager, Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) and, as Bart continues to speak as if Brown is still there, Brown explains his plans for promoting his shows to the audience while getting fried fish from the restaurant kitchen for lunch. The playful framing of the scene creates a relationship between Brown and the audience so we feel like collaborators in his success. The dynamic sets us up to feel disappointed or frustrated in later moments when Brown has conflict with his actual collaborators, like Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), or when he looks to us after he hits his wife, DeeDee (Jill Scott).
In its quick cuts and creative narrative devices, I think one of the weaknesses the film opens itself up to is a tendency to gloss over the surface of the issues around Brown’s life. Particularly when it came to domestic violence and racism, the film uses one or two brief incidents to cover complicated and important aspects of Brown’s story. While this approach prevents the pace of the film from getting bogged down, it also weakens the credibility of the film. This shallowness also does little justice to Brown’s involvement in activism and the civil rights movement, failing to really contextualize some of the film’s events. Plus, if you blink you’d miss that James Brown had a drug problem.
The performances delivered by the ensemble cast are outstanding. Chadwick Boseman, who you may remember as Jackie Robinson in 42, disappears into the iconic role. While good hair and makeup go a long way in creating the look of an older James Brown, Boseman’s performance captures Brown’s energy and mannerisms from youth to old age without falling into caricature. The supporting cast, featuring Nelsan Ellis, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Craig Robinson, and Lennie James, each contribute important support to the story. The weak link is Brandon Smith’s brief appearance as Little Richard. Among so much talent, his overacting was cringe-inducing.
For it’s incredible performances and interesting narrative techniques, I rate Get On Up 4/5 stars.
Get On Up was written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and directed by Tate Taylor. It runs 138 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations.