“You cats ready?” Chadwick Boseman’s James Brown asks the audience, breaking through the fourth wall, early in “Get On Up.” It takes a lot of confidence for a character (and a filmmaker) to take this direct approach. The asides to the camera would feel forced if the biopic were covering almost anyone other than the Godfather of Soul, but it works well in this film.
Directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”), the film bounces between various periods in the singer's life, beginning with a latter day instance of Brown’s antics in 1988 as he berates a woman for “drop(ping) a brick” in his bathroom in August, Georgia. The narrative jumps to 1968, then to 1939 and beyond. The audience gets a glimpse of young Brown and his difficult home life with his argumentative, absent mother (Viola Davis) and abusive father (Lennie James). Abandoned by his parents, he is raised in a brothel by Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), and it is there where he gets a taste of the gospel style that would influence his own music.
While in prison for a relatively minor crime, Brown meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who gives Brown a home and a place in his singing group, which Brown later rechristens The Famous Flames. In the film, Brown’s relationships with his parents and his wives take a backseat to this central friendship that guides Brown both personally and professionally. Byrd stands by Brown through The Famous Flames and through the next several decades of his career.
At its best, “Get On Up” has the energy of a great concert film, and seeing Mick Jagger's name as a producer isn't a shock. You won’t be alone if you’re moving in your seat during the musical performances peppered throughout the movie, whether it’s a “live” performance, or simply Brown singing a cappella. Boseman impeccably recreates Brown’s dance moves, and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt’s camera makes it clear that the actor does not have a double for the more challenging steps early on in the film. The songs feel timeless, regardless of when they fall in Brown’s career. Whether you think you’re a JB fan or not, there’s much to like and recognize here. As Brown asserts in the film, he’s been sampled and copied by numerous artists, but “Get On Up” is a great reminder of –or introduction to– one of the most original American musicians of the past century.
The team behind “Get On Up” has worked to assemble a great cast, including many actors who should be getting plum gigs in Hollywood, like James, Jill Scott and Craig Robinson. Ellis falls into this category, and with “True Blood” playing out its last season, it would be great to see him playing more varied roles. Davis and Spencer are given relatively small parts, but they’re unsurprisingly terrific at playing two of the central female figures in Brown’s young life.
It's still early in Boseman's career, having carried only this and “42,” but he hardly breaks a sweat capturing Brown's epic energy and bravado. He doesn't resemble JB consistently in the film, but his physicality imbues his performance with genuine feeling unlike, say, an impression along the lines of early '80s Eddie Murphy. We’re eager to see what he does next.
"Get On Up" doesn’t shy away from some of Brown’s worst moments, including domestic abuse and mistreatment of his band members. But it also doesn’t dwell on them either; the camera cuts away or a wall obscures our view of a particularly troubling scene involving an altercation with one of his wives. In some ways, we dislike Boseman’s character less than we might, particularly since the aftermath of that fight isn’t emphasized, and it thus feels like a bit of a cheat on the filmmakers’ part. However, the film offers additional insight into the struggles Brown encountered as a black musician in the ‘60s and ‘70s, sometimes with an ironic nudge and a little humor.
Unfortunately, “Get On Up” is at its least successful in its final act, clouding some of the film's early successes. The aging makeup isn’t entirely believable, and there are obvious attempts to create additional sympathy for Brown’s character in his later years.
Taylor is a talented Hollywood-style filmmaker, and the movie should play well with most audiences. It’s challenging to give a full picture of a decades-spanning career, but a number of elements feel like afterthoughts or remnants left from a longer cut of the film. Despite these problems, it’s a crowd pleaser of a film, whose powerful musical moments can overshadow any smaller issues within the film. [B]