Summary: A biopic on the late, great James Brown. Directed by Tate Taylor, the film chronicles Brown’s life as an impoverished child in rural Georgia to legendary superstardom.
Review: Get On Up opens with James Brown in 1988, high on PCP, armed with a rifle and hollering at insurance agents for taking a dump in his private bathroom. It’s an uncomfortable start to the film, which is written by British siblings Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Imagine if What’s Love Got to Do With It opened with Ike Turner punching Tina or if the first frame of Ray was Mr. Charles shooting up heroine. Maybe the objective was to move from dark to light, but considering the oddball first ten minutes, the film had much to redeem. Thank the cinematic gods for Chadwick Boseman. Get On Up is no Malcolm X or Lady Sings the Blues, but the performances and infectious music repairs many of the film’s flaws.
Get On Up is directed by Tate Taylor, the controversial director of The Help. Similar to The Help, which earned Octavia Spencer an Oscar, there is a hard-to-describe absence of feeling and rhythm. Get On Up needed a bit more grit and grime. With the campy one-liners and soft handling of race, you wanted Taylor to dig deeper, go to the gutter of the soul, which is what James Brown effortlessly represented. So you can’t help but wonder how different the film would have been if Spike Lee, who was originally signed on to direct, was at the helm. The blogosphere went mad when Lee was replaced byÂ The Help director, but maybe Tate Taylor has it right. A Spike LeeÂ version of a James Brown biopic might be too much for the public to consume. Taylor plays it safe, which equals box office gold. Personally, though, I love an artistic risk.
Steering clear of the traditional biopic format, the film is not linear. There are constant flashbacks to Brown’s tragic youth. Â However, the flick sometimes gets lost in the flashes, which can be annoying when you are invested in one scene and are suddenly fast-forwarded to a new wig and different characters. Â When the original scene returns, you’ve already checked out. Â In addition, Taylor also relies heavily on talking directly to the camera, which is a device viewers will either love or hate. Â The random monologues into the camera tossed me out of the film, but they might have been necessary for a non-chronological script. Between the erratic narrative and distracting techniques, linear storytelling might have been a better move forÂ Get On Up.
Chadwick Boseman’s performance makes you forgive the obvious hiccups. Though many raised an eyebrow that he would take on playing another historic figure so early in his career, there is no residual of his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in 42. Boseman avoided a common impersonation of Brown, adding soul, humor and drama. The best scene is with Viola Davis (of course, the most powerful moment would be with the consistently astounding Tony winner), who plays Brown’s mother, meeting James Brown for the first time since she abandoned him. It was one of the few scenes Boseman was able to present a sensitive side of Brown with Davis upping the acting stakes. Â I’ll go on record to say Boseman has the potential to be the next Denzel Washington or Matthew McConaughey, he is a star.
Even with the overwhelming 139-minute running time and many flaws, Get On Up is a hard film not to enjoy. Most importantly, what the director, producers and cast effectively communicated was the resilience of the human soul. Similar to Josephine Baker, Tina Turner and Ray Charles, Brown grew up in the dirt of poverty â€” no running water, no social services, abandoned by family, zero education â€” and managed to become an icon. Brown’s story of survival will make you want to get on up and better your own life.
Get On Up is in theaters tomorrow.