The music. The moves. The man. Get On Up explores each of these areas that make up the legend that is James Brown. Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help, Winter’s Bone), the biopic runs the gamut of the late James’ life – from his turbulent childhood, through his first taste of success and ending with one of his final concerts.
What makes this film a must see is the star of the movie, Chadwick Boseman. His performance as Brown is simple stunning. From the moment you see him on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him. He has the voice, the mannerisms, and all the moves down so well, you feel as though James Brown’s spirit inhabited Boseman while making this film. Boseman is quickly carving out a nice career in the biopic sphere with this being his second and 42 being his first. If for no other reason, I would recommend seeing the film for his performance alone.
While as much as Boseman carries the film, the movie is not without its problems. The film is not told in a linear fashion, as we jump back and forth between his childhood, adulthood, and late adulthood. The transition wasn’t always a smooth one and may have benefited from a more straightforward telling. And anytime you watch a biopic, you have to wonder about how much of the truth we’re being “allowed” to see on the screen. While the film does cover aspects of Brown’s life that don’t show him in the best light, you get the sense that some of those events (his time in jail, hitting his wife, etc.) were glossed over. I also would’ve like to have seen a more complete picture of what his relationship was like with his manager/surrogate father, Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) and best friend/bandmate Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). However, what we do get is a sense of just how much of a pioneer in music James was. Wisely, anytime Boseman performs as Brown, they use the original music while Boseman lip-syncs. The musical performances are easily the best parts of the film and are used to great effect. I dare you to sit through those scenes without tapping your feet, singing along, or moving around in your seat. The music is infectious.
The story of James Brown is a rags-to-riches story by the numbers, but the performance of Chadwick Boseman makes it worth seeing. Early in the film, an older, more seasoned Brown puts it best when he says there isn’t a musician or form of music around that hasn’t been influenced by him. He is one of the most sampled artists of all time, and there is a reason he is considered The Godfather of Soul. After watching the film, you’ll understand why.