Get On Up director Tate Taylor faces head-on the overwhelming challenges inherent in creating an all-encompassing biopic. His story of musician James Brown could have easily become just another conventional rags-to-riches story tailor made for VH1. And with such a flamboyant character in the spotlight, tipping over into comical imitation territory might have even been expected -- especially considering that Mr. Dynamite often became a comical parody of himself in his later years.
But like the dazzlingly eccentric character he follows, Taylor marches to his own drum beat with an electrifying little warts-and-all portrayal that would likely even satisfy the self-proclaimed Godfather of Soul himself.
Then there’s Chadwick Boseman who follows up his performance in last year’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42, with another memorable turn, this time not only perfectly capturing Brown’s pompadour-ed countenance and idiosyncratic manner of speaking, but – though there’s only one James Brown – also nailing those famous dance moves… and the swagger, too. Boseman is clearly the star of the show here, and we should expect to hear his name much more often in the coming months.
Taylor avoids the straightforward chronological telling of Brown’s life story – and the requisite anecdotal stiffness – by shuffling the timeline of events in the singer’s life. Boseman also breaks the fourth wall with hallucinatory musings told to the audience to explain his character’s thoughts. What initially feels a bit forced and takes some getting used to, is soon folded quite nicely into a unified, well-paced, and always interesting story.
Book-ended with scenes of Brown’s gun-wielding 1988 arrest, Get On Up quickly heads to 1968 Vietnam where Brown and his band perform under enemy fire for the troops, then flashes even further back to Brown’s 1930s soul-crushing childhood in South Carolina where he endured a violently abusive father, Joe (Lennie James) and a disinterested mother, Susie (Viola Davis). These flashbacks to early childhood contain some deeply disturbing imagery and are often difficult to watch. But, as expected, it’s these formative years that paint Brown’s future self-image as well as his determined ambition to do things his own way.
We learn that young Brown eventually lands at a Georgia brothel run by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) and on Sundays attends a rural church service that plants the seeds of gospel music in Brown’s soul.
But it’s a short stint in the pokey that eventually allows Brown to discover his true musical prowess after joining a jailhouse musical group led by Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) who immediately recognizes Brown’s musical genius and brings the homeless singer into his family’s home. The two would become musical partners and life-long friends until the day Brown died in 2006.
If there are any knocks against Get On Up, they’d likely originate from its two-hour plus runtime. Yet, in spite of its length, major portions of Brown’s life go unaccounted for. For instance, there’s no mention of Brown’s teenage street busking years. Also, we know Brown wrote most of his songs and lyrics, and we see him breathe life into them on the stage, but where did they come from? Conspicuously missing are any meaty depictions of the Hardest-working Man in Show Business’s creative process. And if his creative side bears any resemblance to the way he lived his flashy public life, what a major oversight.
As it stands, Get On Up will go down as another in the very short list of monumental biopics about musical icons. Taylor certainly pulls no punches, and a result, we all come away with a much better understanding of the man behind the music.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated “PG-13” for sexual content, drug use, some strong language and violent situations.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.