One thing that indicates “Get On Up” won’t be exactly like other celebrity biopics is the timing of it. James Brown, the complex singer/musician who is the focus of the story, passed away in 2006. Typically, producers and filmmakers scramble to capitalize on a celebrity’s death by filming and releasing a biopic as close as possible to the year of death. Michael Jackson, for example: he was scarcely cold when “This is It” was released in theaters, and while that wasn’t a full-fledged biopic, it was too soon. You didn’t have to be a Jackson fan to recognize bad taste. In this case, since Brown has been gone nearly a decade, there is a bit more of a sense of perspective for viewers. While this could have been the starting point of a great film, this is simply a mediocre one.
With a life so full, to include all the highs and lows would take a miniseries. So what director Tate Taylor did was to show different points of Brown’s life by not really sticking to a streamlined storyline. Through flashbacks, viewers experience Brown’s sad childhood, his introduction to music, and bits and pieces of his various musical incarnations: as leader of the Famous Flames, Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother Number One, and ultimately, the Godfather of Soul.
The thing about this mish-mash continuity is that diehard James Brown fans may or may not see the scenes or moments that they may really have been hoping for, while Brown newbies will probably just get confused. For instance, while a good deal of screen time is devoted to his childhood, being abandoned by his mother and eventually living in a brothel with his aunt, the years that he spent winning talent shows and learning his musical skills is completely glossed over. At a very young age, James Brown learned how to play piano, guitar, and harmonica. Instead, Taylor makes the inexplicable decision to jump from a scene of young Brown wandering into a church and becoming inspired by the power of a gospel choir to a scene set about ten years later, where he steals a suit and gets thrown in jail. While this does serve to show some of the vital points in his life, I think it also downplays his incredible musical ability by suggesting that the hard work and devotion that it took to win those talent shows and play all those instruments just came to him by osmosis. There is no doubt that he was a musical genius. But even geniuses have to work at acquiring their skill set.
Not only did Taylor make a bold decision in the timeline of the film, but he also chose to “break the fourth wall,” something that doesn’t work well at all here. When the character of James Brown looks directly into the camera and addresses the audience, it’s fun, but since it isn’t done even remotely consistently throughout the movie, it’s not effective.
Another thing that is ineffective is the PG-13 rating. If any musician’s life deserved an “R” rating due to thematic elements, it was James Brown’s. Aforementioned legal troubles at a young age, alleged drug abuse (in spite of an alcohol and drug-free policy that he imposed on his musicians), and most notably, consistent domestic abuse claims (and multiple arrests) followed Brown throughout his life. The distasteful matter of domestic violence is explained away by the fact that Brown’s father was a wife-beater, and after a scene where Brown hits one of his wives (off-camera), I heard the theater-goer next to me whisper to her companion, “It’s because that’s what his daddy did.” The only other scene in the film where domestic abuse is implied is a moment where James suspects his wife of cheating on him, and in anger, hurls a telephone into the bathroom. The moment is played for comedy, and for me at least, felt distinctly inappropriate. Is domestic abuse funny? I would subject that it is not, and that by making a deliberate decision to downplay this big part of Brown’s life in order to achieve a lower rating (and thus attract a wider audience), Taylor and the other filmmakers shot themselves in the foot.
One thing that there is no confusion about is the performance of Chadwick Boseman in the role of James Brown. Not only does he eerily resemble Brown, but he nailed the speaking voice and mannerisms, even if he didn’t actually perform the songs. The best parts of the film are undoubtedly the concert scenes, and younger viewers might even be inspired to YouTube Brown’s real-life performances. Boseman is far and away the highlight of this whole experience, and is more than believable. He is supported by Nelsan Ellis, who plays Brown’s long-suffering bandmate and friend Bobby Byrd. Ellis anchors the movie and helps the audience to understand that while some people are born to the spotlight (like Brown), others are meant to work from the sidelines. Dan Akroyd was a nice casting choice, with extra significance for anyone who has seen the “Blues Brothers” films.
Ultimately, “’Get on Up” works in some areas, and falls completely short in others. Perhaps this was inevitable though, in selecting to portray a life as complex as Brown’s. He was a egotist, a wife-beater, the hardest working man in show business, a shrewd businessman, a musical visionary, a hypocrite, and an icon – maybe someone like this can never be truly well-served by a two and a half hour movie.