Without a doubt, the great James Brown was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, basically writing the very definition of soul music as we know it today. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard one of his multitude of hits, which included “I Got You,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Sex Machine,” and a plethora of others. This begs the question of how it took all the way until 2014 for us to get a biopic of the man who entertained millions with his energetic dance moves and flashy shows for decades. However, at long last, director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow”) have teamed up to tell his story, which takes us from his childhood days in poverty to his days as a superstar.
Told in a non-linear fashion, we jump around in James Brown’s (Chadwick Boseman) life, primarily focusing on how he reached fame and fortune. His first real experience with music comes when he joins a small gospel group. Eventually, the group tries out slightly different music, renaming themselves “The Famous Flames” and picking up gigs wherever they can. This catches the attention of a large record label, but it turns out that they’re really only interested in James, who, despite his effort to keep their band name on the record, decides to move forward with his own career. As he achieves superstar status, we find that success changes him quite a bit, inflating his ego to the point where everything has to be exactly his way, a sad turnaround from his old humble self that only serves to strain the already fragile relationships he has with his close associates.
As far as biopics go, “Get on Up” doesn’t stray far from the standard formula we’re used to seeing in such a film. From a rough childhood, which in this case includes poverty and abandonment, we see the subject rise to the top only to face more hardship. However, this familiar tale doesn’t stop the film from being a highly-entertaining biopic that keeps you interested in the character throughout its duration.
That’s not to say that it’s perfect. It has its share of issues as well, which includes a bloated runtime of 138 minutes. As the film goes on, there are parts that feel rather unnecessary (parts of his childhood seem to stretch on), bringing the film to a bit of a crawl as you wait for it to pick back up again. Luckily you don’t have to wait too long what with the film jumping around a lot and presenting performances of several of Brown’s greatest hits.
The other issue the film faces is that it’s a little shallow regarding Brown’s life after he becomes famous. As he hits superstardom, we watch as he becomes a rather vane jerk to his friends and associates, but beyond that, we don’t really get a full portrait of why he became this way. The film does a great job of exploring how he got to that point, delving into his time with “The Famous Flames” before going off on his own, but after that, it seemed a little lacking in its exploration of the man he became.
That perhaps might have even been its undoing had it not been for the electric performance of Chad Boseman as James Brown. He brings such an incredible energy to the role, inhabiting him with such force that you can’t help but accept him as the legendary “Godfather of Soul.” This is a performance that drives the entire film, one that fills it with life and demands your attention as he deals with the various hardships that he faced in his lifetime. What’s even more incredible is how Boseman is able to play Brown at such an astounding range, from a young man, all the way through his later years. He never falters in his portrayal, never giving us a reason to question who we’re watching. Despite his relative newness to starring roles, Boseman acts like he’s been a leading man for years. In short, his performance alone makes the film worth seeing.
With a grand supporting cast that includes Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer, “Get on Up” is a touching tribute to this great artist whose music is still revered as much today as it was when it was first unleashed. Built on the strength of Boseman’s wonderful performance, the audience is treated to a wide selection of his work, from the chart-toppers to the tracks that some might not be as familiar with, but at the same time, it’s a film that takes its time to show us how Brown got to the top and what success can do to a man when he lets it go to his head. If it had been cut down by a good 20 minutes, or at least if the filmmakers had put that time into a more in-depth examination of Brown’s personal life, this probably would have been a great film, but even so, there’s more than enough here to recommend it, especially when you factor in Boseman’s skillful portrayal and a phenomenal soundtrack that reminds you just how much of a musical genius Brown truly was. 3/4 stars.
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