Get On Up tells the story of the late, great musician and performer James Brown from his troubled upbringing to the iconic “Godfather of Soul” he would eventually become.
It’s quite surprising that it’s taken this long for a proper big-screen biopic about the man. His influence on the world of music, both in its own genre and beyond, is hard to overstate. And director Tate Taylor, who previously had worldwide success with The Help, delivers the sort of energetic and vibrant biopic he deserves.
As opposed to Mr. Turner, which honed in on a very specific part of an artist’s career, Get On Up takes a more all-encompassing approach, jumping between various points throughout Brown’s life. We start in the late ‘80s with him causing a scene with a shotgun at a car dealership, before jumping back to an important gig in the ‘60s, then further back to his childhood, before working our way forward again.
It’s always a danger when a film, but specifically a biopic, does this because it can come across as disjointed and unsatisfying. Thankfully we’re in the hands of a skilled director and a well-written script that keeps things entirely focused and full of energy. In fact, its restless nature is part of the point – this is the story of a lively, matchlessly animated musical performer, and it’s fitting that his depiction here reflects that.
The whole thing hinges on the performance of relative newcomer and rising star Chadwick Boseman. He caught people’s attention last year with the baseball biopic 42, but prepare to see a lot more of him. And not just because he recently landed the coveted role of Marvel’s Black Panther, he has obvious talent.
Boseman is spellbinding throughout, completely committing to the role from the full-on musical performances that seemed, at least until now, to be immune to imitation, to the moments that show a dark side to Brown that most people probably didn’t know about. He does exactly what you’d want and expect from a great actor portraying a real life person; he completely disappears into the role, often making you forget you’re watching a performance and not the actual man himself. Some iffy make-up aside – particularly in those scenes depicting the later part of his life – this is a wholly convincing, utterly electric performance that should make the Oscars sit up and pay attention.
There’s very effective supporting work from the likes of Viola Davis and Lennie James as Brown’s ever-quarrelling, ultimately abandoning parents; Octavia Spencer as the woman who then takes him in, Dan Aykroyd as his record producing friend/mentor and particularly Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette from TV’s True Blood) as his long-time friend and faithful performer, Bobby Byrd. They beautifully complement but never take the spotlight away from Boseman’s enthralling central performance.
Get On Up may seem on the surface to be just another music biopic, nothing that the likes of Walk the Line or Ray hasn’t done before, but while it may hit some familiar beats (no pun intended), it does so with such vim and energy that it’s hard to care. It does an excellent job of exploring the musical world that would shape Brown as a musician just much as he would shape it, highlighting the highs and lows therein, all the while taking us deeply under the skin of a complex man with a fascinatingly eventful life. And for all its zeal and liveliness, it’s also a surprisingly emotional and moving experience; the earlier life drama involving life with his parents is particularly heartbreaking.
I’m not sure if it entirely justifies its lengthy 138 minute runtime – brevity is rarely a bad thing, Hollywood! – but it’s got plenty of spark to keep things moving along that it’s hardly noticeable. This is a biopic that’s very successful at being many things at once, not least of all a stellar showcase for Boseman’s evident and undeniable acting talent.
This review was previously published on Scotcampus.