Note: a version of this review first appeared in Kitchen Drawer Volume 7, Issue 1. For more, visit kitchendrawer.net
Stuffing an entire life into a two-hour movie is, to say the least, a difficult task. Stuffing R&B legend James Brown's entire life into a two-hour movie is a task of near-Herculean proportions. Perhaps realizing this, Get on Up director Tate Taylor (who previously gave us The Help, your mom's favorite film of 2011) gives up on traditional structure altogether and frantically leaps back and forth throughout the highs and lows of Brown's life, blasting The Godfather of Soul's furious funk from start to finish. While it becomes apparent after a while that Taylor's film is a less a revolutionary new brand of storytelling and more a frantic remix of a fairly conventional biopic – it's a collage, not a detailed portrait - the film has a certain unpredictable grooviness which proves near-irresistible.
Nearly every time I watch a musical biopic these days, I'm reminded in one way or another of the gleefully funny Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a film which effectively satirized nearly every convention of the genre. Indeed, Get on Up opens with a scene of an aging James Brown (Chadwick Boseman, 42) preparing to go onstage as voices from his past run through his head, and I couldn't help but think of one of Walk Hard's best lines: “You're gonna have to give him a moment, son. Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.” Then, the film throws its first curveball: it doesn't jump back to Brown's childhood, but rather to Augusta, Georgia circa 1988. There, we witness a fiery, shotgun-toting Brown wandering into an insurance seminar and delivering a bizarre, half-delirious monologue to a captive, frightened audience. It's an electrifying, strange way to kick things off, and the film proceeds to jump back and forth across the timeline of Brown's life from there.
While many of the scenes we witness over the course of Get on Up feel rather conventional (sometimes even tiresomely so), Taylor's arrangement of them keeps us on our toes. Brown was clearly a complicated, troubled, ridiculously talented man, and we never know which side of him we're going to see next. Scenes of Brown being abused as a child are juxtaposed with show-stopping scenes of Brown performing for a captive audience, while scenes which depict Brown as a charismatic charmer sit side-by-side with scenes which demonstrate his history of spousal abuse and drug addiction. It doesn't quite provide a greater understanding of the man (viewers may well leave the film with more questions than they entered with), but it captures his complexities with admirable even-handedness.
Even so, what Brown symbolized is arguably even more important than who he was. Brown was a self-mythologizing musical superhero, complete with cape and larger-than-life hairstyle. Unlike many of his peers, Brown was primarily concerned with reaching a black audience through his music (“Black people don't buy records!” one record label executive insists). He revolutionized the music industry, forced record companies to pay greater attention to minorities and provided the soundtrack to the civil rights movement (one scene recreates the famous incident in which Brown calms an angry crowd in the wake of Dr. King's assassination). His music is nearly omnipresent in the film, and its funky power has a way of nearly overwhelming everything else. No matter what Brown did in his personal life, nothing could possibly overshadow the instantly iconic riffs of “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “The Payback” or “Get Up Offa That Thing.” A bit of text at the film's conclusion notes that Brown is one of the most-sampled artists of all time, and no wonder: those horn blasts and soulful screams add invaluable punch to nearly everything they're added to.
The real reason to see the film isn't the music (which you could simply purchase on its own), but the central performance of Chadwick Boseman. The Jackie Robinson biopic 42 may have proven his worth as a capable leading actor, but Get on Up heralds the arrival of a new star. Boseman commands the screen at all times with his alternately charismatic, entertaining and chilling performance. He has the dance moves down, and somehow manages to recreate Brown's raw physical energy (though he's required to lip-sync the voice). Boseman is backed by a fine supporting cast that includes Viola Davis (Doubt), Dan Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers), Nelsan Ellis (True Blood), Jill Scott (Baggage Claim), Craig Robinson (The Office) and Octavia Spencer (Snowpiercer). They all do fine work (particularly Ellis as Brown's long-suffering best friend Bobby Byrd), but this is Boseman's show. Through his performance, we witness the intensity of Brown's stage presence, the power of his personality and the demons lurking within his soul. Grab a front-row seat and watch one superstar revive another.
Get On Up
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 139 minutes
Release Year: 2014