“Get on Up” directed by Tate Taylor, is a fine music biopic that brings insight and humanity to James Brown. Giving a sense of the forces that shaped him and the role he finally played in the industry, he was a genuine force that controlled his music as much life around him. Compared to other bio pics, this is more focused on music itself. But it never gets its power from lavish music numbers, but through understanding he was. Story wise the director does away with chronology to give a whirling sense of an iconic man, richly illuminating Brown’s musical legacy.
Beginning with a shot of an older James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) walking down a hallway to a concert (backwards way to begin a bio-pic) reveals a man always destined for greatness. Raised in South Carolina, he was heartlessly abandoned by his parents at a young age. Left at a relative’s brothel by his father, he learns to fend for himself and discovers music by visiting churches. Before his fame he spent some time in jail, where he luckily met future Famous Flames bandleader Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). Right away Byrd senses Brown’s virtuosity, so he sits back and lets him do his thing.
Not told in sequential order, we get a glimpse of Brown’s dealings in the music business and how he eventually arrives there. Holding himself with assurance and confidence, this is a person who broke barriers and wasn’t afraid to make his talents known. This includes meeting the high energy Little Richard (Brandon Mychal Smith), and arriving when the industry was mostly white dominated. He was quick to garner notoriety and didn’t let anyone dictate his decisions – taking headliners people deemed too risque . The most important legacy was his music, breaking down barriers to predate genres funk and rap.
The material can feel dark at times, but the drama is somewhat restrained. Like when Brown finally meets his mother Susie (Viola Davis), it doesn’t dig deep enough to standout. Production is fine, but the direction can feel over-bearing and eventually boasts an anticlimactic ending. Though flawed, I found it to be entertaining and informative, saved by Boseman’s transfixing transformation that brings the man to life. It feels slightly restrained in displaying Brown’s negative qualities and even pushing his egotism to the point of monstrosity, but in the end he is ultimately celebrated for the genius he was.
If you’re interested or already a fan of Brown, this is a good way to learn how he approached music. Fans of Tate’s film “The Help” will not be disappointed, again making Hollywood films that deal with race related issues. In terms of music biographies this one is informative and well made, albeit a little long and lacking in vital dramatic tension. The soundtrack is well made with none of the musical numbers performed live; choosing to keep Brown’s original vocals intact in the songs, expressing the sentiment that no one can replicate his accomplishments.
(3 1/2 stars out of 4)
(Released: August 1, 2014)