The conundrum when it comes to any biopic on a larger-than-life figure is how to encapsulate their amazing story into a single two hour film. In most cases it simply can’t be done and those that attempt typically fail. Get On Up star Chadwick Boseman gave an Oscar-worthy performance as Jackie Robinson in 42, a biopic that tried exactly that and couldn’t measure. But Get On Up, directed by The Help’s Tate Taylor, takes a novel approach to Brown’s incredible story. Rather than the usual point-by-point retelling, the film relies largely on mood and emotional beats for a dazzling, non-linear look at the “hardest working man in show business”.
While the film can get a little jumbled and confusing at times, this “brand new bag” of a biopic is coursing with energy thanks to an electric, rousing performance by Boseman that simply must be seen. Right from the start we get a sense of the film’s rather flippant attitude towards Brown’s life and career, as a bathroom toilet, loaded rifle, and flashing police sirens lead to one of his worst moments. This was 1988, and truly it was the time when Brown was at his lowest ebb. It’s a weird place to start a film that is essentially about his rise to fame, but it all serves a purpose when the particulars of Brown’s harsh upbringing surface. Born in a hovel in the heart of the Jim Crow south to an abusive father (Lennie James) and neglectful mother (Viola Davis), Brown’s childhood was nothing but hardship. Run-ins with the law, a stint living in his aunt’s (Octavia Spencer) brothel, and brutal racism built up a thick skin so that when life punched him in the gut Brown never flinched. Even later when he and the band are flying into Vietnam and their plane is shelled by artillery fire, Brown takes it in stride while the others are freaking out.
Just as “the funk” he and his talented band of musicians (the great Maceo Parker was part of the band, played here by Craig Robinson) created defied musical conventions and rhythms, Brown was equally hard to pin down. He could be a tyrannical slave-driver, an unabashed perfectionist, and more than a little paranoid towards his longtime best friend and right-hand man Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis of True Blood fame), but he’s also the same guy who insisted on performing days after the death of Martin Luther King in hopes of preventing a riot. Women seem to flit in and out of his life with little rhyme or reason, with the echoes of past abuse reflecting in his attitude towards relationships. You sometimes wish Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth had spent more time with the ugly stuff; the drugs and domestic violence. But they keep it just on the margins to not upset the PG-13 apple cart, allowing Boseman to hint at us with a knowing smile or regretful glance the inner-workings of Brown’s mind. Always more than just an entertainer, Brown was a shrewd businessman who skirted a racist system by cutting out the middle man and promoting his own shows, with the help of friend and mentor Ben “Pops” Bart, played wonderfully by Dan Akroyd.
Boseman was so good as Jackie Robinson that to say his performance is revelatory wouldn’t quite be true, but its confirmation that we are in the presence of a special talent. While he seems a little uncomfortable in the early passages of the film, Boseman settles into Brown’s skin utterly and completely soon after, capturing the man’s complexity and live-wire spirit all the way down to his creaky, sometimes unintelligible southern twang. On the stage floor he’s nothing short of remarkable, performing Brown’s signature gliding maneuvers as perfectly as the man himself would have demanded. While Boseman mostly sings over top of Brown’s recorded vocals each performance crackles as if you were watching a live show. Mick Jagger serves as exec-producer and no doubt had special input on one moment when an upstart Rolling Stones are upstaged by a pissed off Brown. While Boseman is incredible, the other transcendent turn comes from Ellis, who takes a familiar role and turns it into something special and sympathetic. Byrd stood by Brown’s side when nobody else would, even though it meant giving up his own dreams of stardom. Their rocky friendship is the heart and soul of a film that is full to overflowing with both.
Get On Up may not be the most comprehensive biography, but as it breaks every single rule in the genre’s rulebook it’s a fitting James Brown tribute.