Review: GET ON UP

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

While not all biopics about musical artists are the same, they often share some common story elements.  Let’s face it; especially in the rock ‘n roll business, the artists often fall prey to the usual trappings of success: sex, drugs, and hubris. Most rock ‘n roll fans who love movies have already seen Ray, Walk the Line, The Doors, and several others. So, with yet another biopic opening in theaters, movie buffs are probably asking themselves, “What is so different about this story?” That’s a question writers and directors hope to answer after completing this type of film project. After watching Get on Up, an exciting and vibrant film that tells the James Brown story, I feel that director Tate Taylor and writers Jez and John Henry Butterworth have made a movie that has enough going for it to encourage people to seek it out.  In addition to the gorgeous production and intelligent way Taylor and the Butterworths present the story, Chadwick Boseman delivers a phenomenal performance as one of the most exciting musical artists in the history of rock ‘n roll, funk and soul.

Born in 1933, in South Carolina, James Brown grows up impoverished, only to be abandoned by both his mother and father (Viola Davis, Lennie Brown). Forced to move in with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) at the age of four or five, Brown would spend much of his youth growing up in the brothel run by Honey.  As he grows up, he hones his singing and dancing as part of his worship in church. As a young adult, Brown faces jail time for petty crime where he meets friend and musical collaborator Bobby Byrd (Nelson Ellis).  After his release from prison, Brown, Byrd and other musicians form the Famous Flames which leads to notoriety and success.  This success makes Brown a legend, but also gives him a notorious reputation.

I’m sure my synopsis doesn’t give the film the justice it deserves.  It is true that this film does have several story elements that other music success stories have, but Taylor and the Butterworths present Brown’s story in a fascinating and exciting way. The film doesn’t follow a standard chronological timeline, but is presented non-linearly, flashing back and forth among the key moments in Brown’s life and career. We see the major chapters of his career with references to moments in  his early life that shaped and formed  them.  This method of storytelling makes the film that much more compelling and interesting. James Brown was a fiery, passionate, and emotional performer who had his anger management issues, drug addictions, and problems maintaining relationships of romantic, friendly, and professional varieties, but we, the audience, get a close in-depth glimpse of why he became the man he was.

In addition to the skillful writing and directing choices of telling Brown’s life story, the musical numbers look absolutely stunning and are superbly choreographed, shot and edited.  Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, editor Michael McCusker, the makeup artists, the costume department, and all those who contributed to the concert scenes deserve high praise and accolades for their work. The movie features the vocals and music of James Brown which is lip sync’d by Boseman who also deserves tremendous praise for his outstanding turn as Brown.

Boseman embodies the passion, the spirit, the strength and the sometimes vulnerability of Brown. He nails his signature dance moves and the rapid fire and hyperbolic way of speaking.  The performance transcends mimicry and channels the soul of the legendary performer. It is acting worthy of awards nominations.  The movie also features superb roles by Davis, Brown, Spencer, and Dan Aykroyd (Brown’s manager Ben Bart). The film also has a fun and applause-worthy appearance by Brandon Smith who plays Little Richard. Smith seriously should be cast as Richard should a biopic get made for the “Architect of Rock ‘n Roll.”

Should that happen, though, I’d hope that the filmmakers behind that project would take the time to present that story in a creative and refreshing way.  That’s what Tate Taylor and his crew have attempted and mostly accomplish with Get on Up. These filmmakers could have followed the quicker, easier, more formulaic path to telling the James Brown story, but instead have reenergized the genre with an exciting and intriguing way of presenting another legendary musician’s biopic. James Brown would have been proud.


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