The James Brown biopic, Get On Up captures the very essence of the legendary, Godfather of Soul. It is a frenzied account that goes through story arcs like some people change clean clothes. But first and foremost is the amazing music by a true vanguard and the electric and infectious performance by Chadwick Boseman (42). Overall it is an entertaining portrait of the troubled singer, chameleon entertainer and – by his own admission – “The hardest working man in show business”.

The film is the second offering from actor-turned-director, Tate Taylor (The Help). The story does touch on Brown’s impoverished childhood living in a shack in the Deep South with his unfit parents (played by Viola Davis and Lennie James) but it does not cover these events first. Instead, each anecdote or part of the story (such as his parents rejecting him, an almost comical 1988 arrest, the TV performance where he stole the show from The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger is a producer here) are all interspersed in a non-linear manner, which makes for a rich but sometimes confusing tale.

Lead actor, Boseman may not physically resemble Brown but he is very convincing in the way he gyrates, struts and acts like the man (especially when re-enacting some live performances). He is also ably joined by Dan Aykroyd (who plays Brown’s long-suffering manager) and Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) (Brown’s tried and tested friend and band mate). The supporting actors all put in good performances but their parts are often eclipsed by the egomaniacal weight that is known as James Brown (who even manages to upstage Little Richard (Brandon Smith) when the former meets the effeminate show man for the very first time).

Get On Up sees some re-enactments from Brown’s visceral stage shows and him soaking up the limelight as a chart-topper and perfectionist. But it is the additional and more unconventional anecdotes that make this story an interesting tale about one larger-than-life character. Consider: Brown graduating from poverty only to become a goffer at a brothel and having to fight other poor, young African-American boys for white people’s entertainment. There was also his going to prison for stealing an outfit and finally, the time when he opened fire on an assembly of suits because he was mad at one of them for using his bathroom. His life story is incredible and while the film’s producers could’ve spent more time describing the Soul Man’s drug abuse, domestic violence and the racial issues he encountered in more depth, this would’ve pushed out the run time, which was already substantial.

This musical biopic was an ambitious undertaking (there are even moments where the fourth wall is broken down, injecting a more direct-style of energy to the proceedings). James Brown was a truly complicated man with many different facets, including a dark side. Get On Up’s plot may jump around but the film remains an entertaining and informative, wild ride. It’s a kind of uncompromising, crazed and unconventional mix that reflects the subject matter to a tee.


Originally published on 1 November 2014 at the following website:

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