Get on Up suffers all the problems that many biopics do. It wanders aimlessly, the flashbacks are generic & scattered, and it’s overly long. But let’s be serious: there’s only one element that truly matters, and that is James Brown. Despite all the film’s problems, this movie works because of the dynamic and career making performance of Chadwick Boseman as the Godfather of Soul.
Boseman came onto the scene with last year’s 42, where he played the iconic hitter Jackie Robinson. Boseman was okay, but nothing special. I certainly saw potential in the actor, but right after that movie came out, he immediately got the part of James Brown. I thought there was no way this guy was ready for a role of that magnitude. Boy, was I wrong. Whether this movie does well or not, Boseman has now become a player in Hollywood, and you’ll hear his name thrown about for a lot of roles in the coming months.
When you think about it, a relatively unknown actor made the most sense to play James Brown. If you got someone like Jamie Foxx, he certainly would have been awesome, but Foxx is so well known, you would have just seen Foxx as James Brown. With Chadwick Boseman, that is James Brown. It’s scary. I can’t believe this meek guy who gave a mediocre performance as Jackie Robinson was able to electrify the entire theater. Watching Boseman perform all of Brown’s classics is pure entertainment, and enough to sell the entire movie. But even in the non singing scenes, he’s just as effective. The way Brown acts and talks could have been handled very poorly, but Boseman sells it. There are two scenes in particular that are Oscar-type moments. One is at the very beginning in the late eighties, where Brown is a broken down man, and kind of scary. The other is when he performs at the Boston Garden after Martin Luther King Jr. gets assassinated, and he has to control the crowd. The way everybody listens to him, it’s almost as if he’s a God on stage. Boseman captures this perfectly. This movie will come and go, and Boseman will be forgotten about at awards time, but it is that level of performance.
The other noteworthy performance is Brown’s right hand man and long-time friend, Bobby Byrd, played by Nelsan Ellis. Ellis compliments Boseman’s performance perfectly as the more level headed of the two, and a guy who desperately wants to break out of Brown’s shadow, but also struggles with leaving his friend. Even though the majority of this movie is unfocused, their friendship becomes the true lynchpin in the second half, and the movie is stronger for it. The other relationship I really enjoyed was between Brown and his music manager, Ben Bart, played wonderfully by Dan Aykroyd. Bart is the only guy along with Brown who sees his potential, and the best way to maximize it. This was a really fun dynamic to the film.
Despite these performances, I was disappointed with the female roles. Octavia Spencer plays Aunt Honey who looks after Brown when his parents abandon him. The script didn’t give Spencer much to do, but for as great an actress as she is, I felt she mailed it in for this one. Viola Davis has a couple powerful scenes as Brown’s mom, but there was nothing really memorable about the character or performance.
The real problem is the direction by Tate Taylor. All the musical sequences were fantastic, but narratively, the film is a mess. The nonlinear pacing in the first act was completely scatter shot, and the flashbacks of Brown as a kid were very “been there, done that” territory. It also gets too artsy for its own good, as flashbacks are interwoven at the same time Brown is going through a major crisis, and those made no sense. They also don’t follow through on certain plot points, especially in regards to Brown’s wives that get completely tossed aside. The way I feel about Get on Up is very much what I thought about The Help. There’s some great moments, and Taylor certainly shows he has potential, but there is a little Peter Jackson in him in that he needs to learn how to edit a movie. Both Taylor’s films are entirely too long.
Boseman has now become a player in Hollywood, and you’ll hear his name thrown about for a lot of roles in the coming months.
As far as musical biopics go, I much prefer something like Walk the Line. It’s a lot more focused, and as it goes through the life and times of Johnny Cash, there’s a clear goal in that he wants to marry June. While I appreciate the emphasis on Brown’s relationship with Byrd, and the overall theme of Brown isolating himself the more famous he got, it didn’t have that same focus. Despite the film’s problems, it succeeds where it counts most, and that is the man himself, James Brown. Chadwick Boseman carries the film on his back, and that alone is worth the price of admission.
Rating: 7 out of 10 (Good)
Daniel Cohen is the Film Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from reviews, Daniel does a weekly box office predictions column, and also contributes monthly Top Tens and Op-Ed’s on all things film. Daniel is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English, and also studied Screenwriting at UCLA. He can also be read on www.movieshenanigans.com. His movie crush is Jessica Rabbit. Follow him on Twitter @dcohenwriter.