Get On Up

Directed By: Tate Taylor

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Keith Robinson, Octavia Spencer, Brandon Mychal Smith, Jill Scott, Tika Sumpter, and Craig Robinson

As you all know, I share a name with the subject of the recently released musical biopic Get On Up.  Having the name James Brown comes with a certain responsibility — to endure a lifetime of singing, shouting, and dancing at the most unexpected times in the most unexpected places.  For instance, I can recall my oral surgeon dancing into the operating room as I was about to go under the knife, which is not exactly soothing.  Over the years, I've seen more imitations and interpretations of James Brown than I care to remember.  With this in mind, I come to this weekend's Get On Up with a somewhat different perspective.  Many miss the vibrant music and artistry of the Godfather of Soul and probably watch with a certain nostalgia.  I, however, live with it every day by no choice of my own and am just looking for a movie to wash away all the bad singing and dancing I've endured.  I deserve it.

It's 1988.  A middle-aged James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) drives up to his office to find that someone has used his restroom to let off a load.  Angered by this, he proceeds to pick up his shotgun and interrupt a convention to identify the individual that did right by himself or herself but not the Godfather of Soul.  The film cuts from this escalating situation back to an earlier time in Brown's life and proceeds to tell about his harsh early years with his parents Joe and Susie Brown (Lennie James & Viola Davis), his adolescent years living with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) in her brothel, and his formative years with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and the Famous Flames.  From here, the film chronicles the iconic career and tumultuous personal life of "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business".

Director Tate Taylor (The Help) finds a groove, and keeps it pulsating throughout this soulful biographical drama.  I'm sure many will talk about how Get On Up fittingly captures key moments in Brown's life with a well-rounded depiction of the man and the superstar.  I'm sure many will talk about hearing many of the classic tunes they know and love.  I'm sure many will talk about watching stellar performances from the film's cast.  However, none of this really quite captures what makes Get On Up click.  We all can turn on the radio or go to YouTube and witness the greatness of James Brown anytime we choose.  In my case, I witness it by just interacting with people during the course of a normal day.  Nonetheless, what makes this musical biopic so good is much more production-centric.

As Taylor chronicles Brown's seven decades with us, it's important to bring both the man and the times to life.  To do so, his crew must deliver some outstanding make-up, costumes, and set design.  In the film, Chadwick Boseman looks like James Brown thanks to some incredible make-up and costumes.  Similarly, his supporting cast convinces me that they're a group of soul brothers and soul sisters from back in the day thanks to some equally detailed make-up and costumes.  Beyond this, the crew delivers some impressive set design emblematic of the 50’s and 60’s during which most of the film takes place.  Moreover, the essence of a successful musical biopic is making it as close as indistinguishable from real life as possible, and the crew effectively does so with their strong work throughout the film.

The cast delivers a slew of strong performances throughout the film.  For his part as our star James Brown, Chadwick Boseman doesn't miss a beat.  He walks and talks like James Brown.  He effortlessly slides across the dance floor with fancy footwork like James Brown.  He's got soul and is superbad like James Brown, to an extent.  While he offers a strong performance on many fronts, Boseman's performance lacks an emotional depth at times.  It also doesn't help that he's lip-synching and not truly covering Brown's classic hits.  Still, the 42 star does a good job continuing to make a career out of portraying great black men.

For his part in a supporting role as Bobby Byrd, Nelsan Ellis serves as the moral compass of the film.  Ellis brings plenty of humor, funk, and wisdom throughout Get On Up.  Portraying Brown's mother Susie, Viola Davis delivers a poignant performance that can really be defined by one word — shame.  Packing an emotional punch, Davis's few times on screen are definitely scene-stealers.  As Brown's equally loathsome and frequently abusive father Joe, Lennie James delivers a solid performance (Interestingly enough, it's worth noting that Michael Jackson and his idol James Brown both had abusive fathers named Joe).  For her part as Brown's Aunt Honey, Octavia Spencer gives moviegoers a strong black woman, a treasured and delightful rarity in a film about the musician who sang "It's a Man's Man's Man's World".  Lastly, I have to pay compliments to the young twins Jamarion and Jordan Scott who portray a young James Brown.    Despite their age, their performances pack an emotional punch that's key in some of the film's most dramatic scenes.

While I have plenty of praise for Get On Up, I must say that the creative choice to employ a nonlinear narrative does not pay dividends throughout the film.  By jumping from one point in time in Brown's life to another to emphasize whatever is happening at a given moment in the film is a cinematic device that doesn't quite do Brown's life justice and shows a bit of disrespect to moviegoers.  Trying to capture his meteoric rise in the music industry, the profound impact of his social activism, and his personal turmoil behind the scenes is a tall order.  It's something that would have been much easier to do had Tate Taylor used a more chronological narrative.  By spoon-feeding his audience information out of order, Tate shows that he doesn't trust his moviegoers to remember key things that happened earlier in the film.  Instead, he should put more faith in his viewers.

Like Mr. Brown, Get On Up is born dead.  Starting off with the handicap of the nonlinear narrative, it becomes a much better film because of the creative energy the cast and crew invest in every step they take and every move they make on set.  It's not perfect, but it's still one good movie that has an undeniable groove.  Get On Up gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.