Movie Review: “Get on Up”

Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Octavia Spencer, Dan Aykroyd, Craig Robinson
Tate Taylor

Every movie trend has its fans. Monster movies, disaster movies, chick flicks, tearjerkers, conspiracy thrillers, they all have people who love them regardless of their financial viability at the box office. No one, however, misses the biopic, films based on the life of a famous person. In fact, after “Walk the Line” and “Ray,” people were so done with biopics that most people passed on arguably the best biopic of that era, even though it expertly lampooned the biopic structure and had a damned good soundtrack to boot (“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” we still love ya, baby). To further prove this point, earlier this year, Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” sank like a stone, despite the fact that the musical of the same name sells out everywhere it goes, and last year’s Princess Diana film starring Naomi Watts fared even worse. No one misses the biopic.

Everyone misses James Brown, though, which is why “Get on Up: The James Brown Story” has something those other movies didn’t: instant swagger. It actually has a couple of things the others don’t, namely a non-linear timeline that would give Doctor Who pause, and it does the unthinkable by occasionally breaking the fourth wall, at times to hilarious effect. The story line is too slight, opting for depth of event coverage over depth of character, but thanks to a, um, showstopping performance by Chadwick Boseman, “Get on Up” is quite entertaining despite its flaws. It is also genius counterprogramming to this weekend’s box office juggernaut, “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Someone at Universal should get a bonus for that decision alone.

James Brown’s (played by twins Jamarion Scott and Jordan Scott as a child, Boseman as an adult) upbringing was the literal definition of dirt poor. He lived in a shack in the woods. His father abused him, and his mother abandoned him. James’ father leaves him in the care of a madam (Octavia Spencer), so it’s no surprise that as a teen, he’s staring down an unreasonably long prison sentence for petty larceny. A gospel group performs at the prison, and James shows enough of his musical ability to band member Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) to persuade him to convince his parents to take James home with him, since the lack of a family is why his sentence was so lengthy. James begins singing with Bobby’s family, but it isn’t long before he’s running the show. The band cuts a record, which gets the attention of King Records’ Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), and very quickly, James sees that in order for a black man to survive in the white-run music industry, he would need to get more involved with the business side of show business.

There is admittedly a ton of ground to cover here. There’s the ‘good foot dance’ incident in 1988, the trip to play for the soldiers in the Vietnam war, the baby mamas, the disputes with band members over money (this happens multiple times), and the childhood flashbacks to pivotal, crushing moments in James’ life. Because of that, they don’t have much time to dig beneath the surface. The good foot dance is shown, but not at all explained; in fact, it’s over a decade removed from the events that preceded it. Wiki will tell us that he was enjoying his first success in ages when that went down, but the movie offers no context. Personally, I would have gladly traded the needless time-lapse scenes for anything that dug into the ‘why’ of what we were watching.

Because of this, the film lives and dies on the performance of its lead, and Boseman knocks it out of the park. He nails Brown’s voice, his dance moves (though that could have been stunt doubles and CGI, we don’t know), and even the jaw line. Hell, he’s unintelligible half the time, which actually plays into Brown’s mythology, or at least Eddie Murphy’s version of Brown’s mythology. Ellis provides some nice support as Bobby Byrd – he has a Ving Rhames vibe, in a good way – but the only other standout performance is the three-minute turn by Brandon Smith as Little Richard, though they went to ridiculous lengths to showcase Richard’s femininity. Everyone else turns in fine work, but anyone could have played the roles that ultimately went to Spencer, Viola Davis, Craig Robinson and even Aykroyd, though having him play the manager is a nice in-joke considering the fact that he’s a Blues Brother.

Think of “Get on Up” as the cinematic equivalent of trying to distill James Brown’s discography down to 10 tracks, bearing in mind that he sent almost 100 songs into the Billboard Hot 100. It’s not nearly enough to do justice to his influence on popular music, and yet the movie still had a runtime of 118 minutes, so something had to give. (We would have loved to see a segment from the late ‘80s of Brown reacting to every other hip hop record using his “Funky Drummer” as the backbeat, but alas.) In this case, they gave up complexity, which is funny when you think about what a complicated man James Brown was, and yet, the movie still works.