Get on Up is an example of how an exceptional leading performance and stylish direction can help to overcome what’s essentially a baseline, standard sort of musical biopic. Much like how something as standard as Begin Again has to live in the shadow of a blistering parody like They Came Together, Get on Up might be ruined by everyone who has seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It’s essentially giving into every genre cliché possible, but at least this one is savvy enough to not stick to the “rise and fall from grace” playbook to the letter.
It’s the tale of the life and times of James Brown – the “Godfather of Soul”, “the hardest working man in showbusiness.” The film follows Brown – played here by Chadwick Boseman – from his upbringing during World War II to a pair of dysfunctional parents in a squalid shack in the woods to his imprisonment at 17 for pilfering a three piece suit to the formation of his first band (The Famous Flames) to his solo stardom and finally to his eventual downfall at the hands of drugs and alcohol before a reconciliation and attempted comeback.
It doesn’t do things necessarily in that order, though. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) actually starts off with an infamous 1988 anecdote about an off his rocker Brown brandishing a shotgun around an office and demanding to know who used his private bathroom. From there the film blends past and present, jumping around in a fashion where one seminal moment in the funk pioneer’s life could inform another. It’s an interesting take on usually linear biopic conventions, and one that adds an intriguing layer of mysticism to Brown’s allure.
The film also acts as a sort of mixtape-musical ode to Brown, bouncing around between different showstopping performances with the dramatic interludes acting as bridges between them. That’s also interesting considering the ambition of the time shifting narrative structure. The performances themselves are incredibly well shot, with Taylor demonstrating a keen understanding of the kind of movement and soul that made Brown one of the most commanding stage presences of all time. The camera moves and bobs and weaves in sync with Boseman’s performance, forcing the audience to gaze upon something truly special.
And there’s nothing more commanding about the film than Boseman, who does an even better job as James Brown this year than he did as Jackie Robinson last year in 42. Still a young actor, Boseman disappears into the role of Brown at every stage of the man’s life fully and completely. Consistently electrifying from James’ younger brasher days to his eventual egotism and paranoia that those around him just want to screw him over, Boseman gives the film so much energy that Taylor has to struggle to keep up with it all. It’s hard to play someone as iconic as James Brown and have it feel believable, but there’s something truly eerie and uncanny about what Boseman does here, and I mean that in a very positive way. It’s easy to forget during performances that you aren’t watching the real deal, and it’s a testament to the actor that he can sell more awkward intimate moments with just as much zeal. He also does a fine job of selling the film’s almost “devil may care” attitude that includes a lot of fourth wall breaking asides to the audience that come across here as endearingly conversational instead of gimmicky. He definitely deserves to be remembered come awards season. The film belongs to Boseman and the spirit of Brown, and Taylor certainly frames it that way while everyone else seems perfectly content to just get out of the way.
And that, aside from trotting out every cliché in the musician biopic handbook, is a big part of the problem with Get on Up. Brown was a brilliant man, but also an undeniable madman with some inexcusable traits who treated everyone around him pretty horrendously. The film’s opening hints that Taylor and company seek to go down a darker, less hagiographic path, but there’s a complete inability to reconcile Brown’s sometimes loathsome transgressions with the person he’s often remembered as. When Brown is exposed at various points as a tax cheat, a wife beater, a drug addict, an absentee father, the inventor of payola, and a despotic bandleader who treats his musicians lower than his own hired help, it’s brushed off very quickly and awkwardly to barely be talked about for more than two minutes at a time out of a 140 minute film. There seems to be a tendency to move away from the darkness too quickly; like there’s a “Quick! We need to get to the next showstopping musical number fast!” mentality that’s working against the natural grade of the material itself. It’s irritating considering how well the rest of the film seems to be striving for something different. Even the biopics of years past that Taylor is getting his marching orders from would spend more time on the nastier stuff than what gets glossed over here.
As such, the film’s relatively stacked supporting cast doesn’t get very many chances to shine through. Nelsan Ellis fares the best as James’ right hand man Bobby Byrd, but mostly just because he’s in a lot of the film. It’s a pretty thankless sidekick role, and the film only barely gets around to asking why Bobby sticks around given all of James’ petty bullshit. Dan Aykroyd gets some of his best material in years as James’ faithful manager and advice giver, Ben Bart. Craig Robinson gets a chance to show off some of his dramatic chops in fine fashion as skeptical saxophonist Maceo Parker. And unfortunately all of the women in James’ life, including Octavia Spencer as his aunt/adoptive mother, Viola Davis as his absentee mother, and Jill Scott as one of James’ wives, are simply trotted out in such a manner that the film uncomfortably insinuates they’re part of the reason James was so screwed up.
There’s quite a bit wrong with Get on Up, but there’s a scene in the film where James is addressing his musicians about how it can sometimes be okay to be out of time. The guiding mentality behind Taylor’s work here (and to a lesser extent Brown’s) is that if it feels good and sounds good, then it’s worth doing. That and the constant fourth wall breaking suggests that Get on Up isn’t striving to be the definitive fictionalized look at one of the most groundbreaking musicians who ever lived. Much like the nickname for its subject, this might be the hardest working film in showbiz at the moment. It has to though, since the material isn’t adding up to anything that hasn’t been done before. I want to rate it as a must see for Boseman’s tireless work in making Brown come to life, but I can’t quite bring myself to that point. If you have an appreciation for Brown’s showmanship or excellent performances, then you shouldn’t let this one get away. But if you want to learn something about the king of funk that you can’t get from Wikipedia or a book, then you’ll probably be disappointed.