Synopsis: A chronicle of James Brown’s rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Lennie James, Jill Scott, Dan Aykroyd
Director: Tate Taylor
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: As I mentioned in my review of the trailer for Get on Up, my dad was responsible for introducing me to the music of James Brown. I remember he had several cassettes of Brown’s hits in his car and though I liked his early music just fine it was his later smash “Living in America” that I requested most often. May dad passed away in 2009 and watching this long overdue biopic of Brown I couldn’t help but think how much my dad would have grooved with this well made, if overly sanitized, look into the life of the Godfather of Soul.
Being a James Brown fan I was a little leery about how this PG-13 biopic chronicling Brown’s rise to fame would tackle some of the more R-rated aspects of Brown’s life and career. The answer to that is it treats some of Brown’s run-ins with the law, drug use, marital problems, and allegations of domestic abuse as anecdotes to his story rather than events that played a huge role in the path his career and life ultimately took. It’s more reverentially respectful to the man once called Mr. Dynamite than condemning.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. The movie is designed to be an audience pleaser, thundering along with hit after hit…not making you wait for the music like June’s Jersey Boys, which seemed afraid to let their Broadway-trained actors actually sing the songs crowds know by heart. As James Brown, Chadwick Boseman doesn’t do any singing of his own but impressively lyp-synchs to Brown’s vocals. And what vocals! The sound design is appropriately loud and immersive, allowing ticket-buyers the opportunity to hear every horn and funky beat that Brown and company laid down.
Director Tate Taylor wasn’t the obvious choice to helm 2011’s adaptation of The Help and he’s an odd choice for this one too…but he brings a certain flare to the screen that matches well with Brown’s larger than life personality. Working from an oddly structured script by brothers Jez & John-Henry Butterworth (already represented this summer with Edge of Tomorrow), Taylor brings along several of his ladies from The Help for comfort and winds up giving them another chance to shine.
The script has its problems though. The brothers Butterworth opt for a fractured timeline to tell their tale, beginning in the 80s before quickly moving backwards, forwards, sideways, and such to other years in Brown’s life. I get that the standard narrative of biopics is straight-ahead-with-no-stops but what happens here results in confusion of time and place, making it difficult to see how certain events of the past influenced the star in the future. It also conveniently places emotional arcs right where they need to be, peeking with a poignant (though well acted) crescendo shortly before the credits roll. It’s as if the film was put together randomly, rather than from a place with strong narrative intentions.
The randomness of the scenes could have been a death sentence for the film had the performances not been so terrific. Boseman (Draft Day, 42) takes on another real life story and knocks it clean out of the park. The first time we see him as Brown he’s walking down a shadowy hallway before a concert late in life with Brown’s recognizable swagger. Then we see his face and for a moment I wasn’t sure if it was Boseman or stock footage of the real man he’s portraying. Boseman nails Brown’s raspy voice and rapid fire delivery and acquits himself as a dancer quite believably. It’s a fully realized, galvanizing performance that signals Boseman is just getting started in this business.
Maybe even better than Boseman is Nelsan Ellis (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) as Brown’s second in command, confidant, and life-long friend. Meeting an imprisoned Brown while performing with his gospel group in a local penitentiary, Byrd takes him under his wing and allows him to fly even after Brown outgrew his old band mates. Ellis too lyp-synchs quite well and goes toe-to-toe with Boseman in several highly charged scenes. It would be great to see Ellis nab an Oscar nom for his valuable supporting contribution to the film.
Rounding out the cast is Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures) as Brown’s absentee mother, Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) in a marginally realized role as Brown’s aunt running a shanty town brothel, & Dan Aykroyd (This is My Life), contributing less than his fair share as Brown’s agent. All are merely there to bridge gaps between scenes where Boseman and Ellis can do their thing.
Though it misses opportunities to dig into some sensitive territory, Get on Up is nonetheless a pleasing bit of entertainment that accomplishes what it sets out to do: tell the James Brown story through music.