In his follow-up to the four-time Academy Award (R)-nominated blockbuster The Help, Tate Taylor directs 42‘s Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get On Up. Based on the incredible life story of the Godfather of Soul, the film will give a fearless look inside the music, moves and moods of Brown, taking audiences on the journey from his impoverished childhood to his evolution into one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
My Opinion: James Brown is undeniably one of the biggest figures in popular music ever, and his story is tumultuous enough to make it interesting. It’s also long enough of a life to make any biopic a challenge, and Brown a big enough figure to make any actor’s portrayal daunting at best.
Get On Up manages to at least get one of the two issues at hand nailed down right. Chadwick Boseman electrifies the screen as Brown, from 16 to 60. Boseman previously wowed audiences playing Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42, but he tops himself with the type of performance that, if this film were being released three to five months later in the year, would be generating talks of an Oscar. It’s that good.
Unfortunately, he’s stuck in a film that’s otherwise a bit of a mess. The screenplay sticks with a nonlinear structure, jumping across decades and in some cases, any connective tissue between parts of Brown’s life. The film opens in the late 80s, jumps back to the 60s, then to Brown’s early life within the first ten minutes.
What’s more, the film includes some odd structural choices that are only used on rare occasion, including breaking the fourth wall. This would be more effective if, say, Brown was narrating his life throughout the film. Instead, this effect is used without consistency.
More troubling is the way the film approaches certain aspects of Brown’s life. While the film does show a few instances of Brown’s domestic abuse and drug use, they’re not shown to the degree they existed – very publicly – in Brown’s life. It’s not a completely sanitized view of Brown’s life, but it’s certainly not a warts-and-all version either.
If anything, the focus of the film is on Brown’s insistence that he didn’t need anyone in his life, and how badly he did need someone in his life to ground him. It’s the one thing that comes up throughout the film, whether through his parental figures, his wives, bandmates, or his lengthy relationship with collaborator Bobby Byrd.