“Get On Up” opens promisingly enough – or, at the very least, amusingly enough – with an older James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) zipping into a strip mall parking lot, blasting his own jams on the stereo, storming into a business he apparently owns, checking the bathroom for signs of wear, and subsequently screaming at a present crowd for daring to employ his facilities for their intended use. He has a gun, of course, which he then fires into the ceiling, all while delivering a rambling speech that involves both bodily functions and attending church. Later in the film, we’ll see how this all plays out – the infamous 1988 incident (which has been significantly changed for the film’s narrative, though Brown did get into a weird car chase with cops that year) ended with Brown attempting to outrun the cops, ultimately losing out to his own idiocy and poor judgment.
It’s a cartoonish, outsized introduction to a man who was, at worst, both things (and plenty more). Boseman, however, sells it. The actor – who recently appeared in “42” as Jackie Robinson, another lackluster biopic elevated by his performance and obvious commitment – turns in an excellent performance as a time-spanning Brown. “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” (cool name, right? Too bad we never learn its origin) was a larger than life character, but Boseman keeps him wholly human and consistently believable. Even when he’s randomly ranting and raving (or winkingly breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience), Boseman keeps Brown’s word salad speeches and apparent adoration for referring to himself in the third person feel like the trappings of an actual person, not a carefully cultivated persona. While Boseman didn’t do any of his own singing for the feature (it’s all original Brown recordings), he does dance like Brown, and man, can Boseman get down (and, yes, he can get on up, too, especially when pulling himself out of Brown’s trademark splits).
After starting later in Brown’s life (the singer passed away in 2006 at age 73), Tate Taylor’s biopic zips back in time to the mid-sixties, and then still further back, to James’ impoverished childhood, all in the span of less than 10 minutes. The inscrutable, choppy narrative eventually evens out (and Taylor’s use of intertitles that literally tell us the date in question remain essential throughout), but it’s a rough start, and most of the film free floats without much forward motion. Taylor’s ill-timed interest in using time-lapse photography to show the spread of hours doesn’t help at all, and it sticks out as an overly affected addition that doesn’t contribute to the film’s artistry or narrative in the least.
“Get On Up” is as much about Brown’s tremendous success as it is about the singer’s fatal flaws, oversimplified here for sympathetic consumption. James’ apparent inability to really open himself up to other people – and thus, not allowing to ever really “need” anybody – comes care of a terrible childhood punctuated by abuse and poverty, neither of which Taylor is afraid to show. His rise to fame is almost accidental, but James believes his destiny is preordained, and he never seems surprised by his success, even in the thin early years.
The film pays little attention to the majority of Brown’s adult relationships, instead staying fixed on James and his mother (Viola Davis), James and his father (Lennie James), and James and his best friend and bandmate Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), which eventually forms the film’s emotional center. Brown, clearly a ladies’ man, zips through romantic partners, but they are all given short shrift in the film – even his second wife DeeDee, who is played with vigor and vim by Jill Scott, is still without any compelling shades. Brown’s many children – nine in total, at least when it comes to his acknowledged offspring – are barely present and only mentioned when absolutely necessary.
The film is peppered with occurrences that are presented in such a way that they signal that they’ll be important later on – a pair of shoes that young James pulls off a dead man, a highly contagious rash that appears on his son’s chin, a dalliance with Bobby’s younger sister, amongst others – that never amount to anything. It’s reverse foreshadowing, and it makes most of the film feel like a bait and switch, hooking viewers into paying attention to meaningless bits while ignoring much of the truth about James Brown’s life.
“Get On Up” doesn’t even appear to care much for Brown’s work as an artist, and despite a number of show-stopping performances throughout the film, there’s little in here about how any of it was actually crafted. James’ obsession with his sound – the funk, the groove, all that indescribable stuff – is talked about at length, but the film doesn’t feature even one instance of Brown writing his songs, and the process of arranging his music only pops up once, playing second fiddle to a freak out that illustrates Brown’s inability to relate to the people who should be closest to him.
Brown’s later-in-life struggles with drugs are only briefly touched upon, with just a single scene of the singer getting high appearing during the film (the scene is, however, hacked into two bits that play at different times in the narrative). The singer was frequently accused of domestic violence in real life, but he only throws one punch in the film. There is zero attention paid to a rape charge issued against Brown in his final years. Instead, Brown’s troubles with the law are illustrated by a single instance of petty theft in his teen years and his wacky shootin’ and runnin’ spree in 1988.
Biopics are never easy to make – after all, how could anyone’s life, especially someone as famous and wild as James Brown, be accurately distilled down to a digestible runtime without losing plenty in the process? – but Taylor’s film so egregiously picks and chooses from Brown’s life that the result is a holey and unsatisfying document that fails to give due respect to much of the singer’s life (especially the more unsavory stuff). Fans of James Brown eager to find out more about his life will find more in-depth investigation and information on his Wikipedia page than in Taylor’s groove-heavy and narratively light biopic.