Get On Up: Movie Review
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Akroyd, Viola Davis
Director: Tate Taylor (The Help)
The godfather of Soul cast a long shadow over the musical world – and this musical biopic aims to do the same.
Charting James Brown’s life and times, from his childhood traumas to the rise to the top of the charts, the latest from The Help director Tate Taylor is a splintered affair, that revels in the funk, but scats over the darker side and nature of the man.
Choosing to bounce around the timelines of his life more than the sex machine did on stage, Taylor’s attempts at a non-linear, non-conventional biopic is a choppy affair, stripped of any narrative cohesion and exercise in not joining the dots and pandering to its audience. Glossing over any social context and history means that the film feels removed from the times (which so mired parts of Taylor’s last the award-winning The Help) and serves to lift the audience out of Brown’s story.
Starting with Brown walking out to the stage and reflecting on his abused past, the tone of the film is set with Taylor taking in three different time-jumps in as many moments, giving the viewer nary a chance to settle in and begin to connect. Plus, with Brown breaking the fourth wall occasionally and talking in the third person, the tonal shifts actually end up taking you out of the film that shows some warts (fleetingly) of its subject.
Thankfully, it's Boseman's commanding portrayal of Brown - along with some blisteringly electric live performances and a soulful OST - that really elevates Get On Up to the heights that it deserves to scale. Boseman is never anything less than compelling as The Godfather of Soul throughout – from the man moved by gospel to the soulless tyrannical monster who causes wedges in his own band through their mistreatment; from channeling Brown's slitheringly funky dance moves to his vocal intonations, this is as chameleonic and watchable a turn as you're likely to see this year.
Boseman breathes real life livewire energy into Brown from beginning to end (in the way that Joaquin Phoenix did in Walk The Line and Jamie Foxx did in Ray) – as well as giving some life to the monstrously paranoid and uglier side of the man (even though the script cheats as it skirts around the edgier moments and offers glimpses rather than full on dives into the man’s psyche).
Equally as impressive is True Blood star Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, the man who recognised Brown's talent and did all he could to bolster that. Scenes between the pair give the film a warmth that's needed and a heart that’s necessary - and is lacking in other parts due to the compulsion to jump around narratively more than Brown would ever do on stage. Likewise, Dan Ackroyd seems to get some of the vim and vigour he had in the Blues Brothers as Ben Bart, the manager who aided Brown’s ascent – a fact that’s glossed over in this flick in favour of Brown apparently displaying business acumen.
But it's Taylor's insistence on presenting the James Brown story without the darkness that's the most cloying aspect of the film – and a touch that sanitises this tale of rock and roll; a moment of domestic violence hits off screen and is then followed by Boseman directly looking into the lens, a jarring touch that seems to prefer to skirt over the more tormented side of Brown. Equally, there's hardly any time spent on his youth to explain why Brown ended up as driven as he did and as insecure of others, other than brief snapshots here and there. It's the lack of this that stops Get On Up from really getting you into the mind of the man. Perhaps, a decision to give the film more of a focus would have prevented such a cinematic and narrative discord.