by Matthew Taylor
The impact that James Brown left on the music industry is almost impossible to put into words, let alone capture on film. Unfortunately, Tate Taylor’s Get On Up fails to truly encompass the significance of Brown’s career, while also struggling to make a name for itself in the rather tired subgenre of biographical dramas. Still, like Brown’s classic songs, the film has an infectious quality to it. Even with its fair share of flaws, the film is an entertaining look at Brown’s life and career.
Taylor and the film’s screenwriter, Steven Baigelman, make the unusual decision to tell the story in a nonlinear narrative. Like a greatest hits album, the film moves through all the major events in Brown’s life. But this album is on shuffle, and the events are sewn together without rhyme or reason. There is no clear story being told, and no central thesis declared on what the audience should walk away from the film thinking about. It becomes especially frustrating when sequences are drawn out for too long or brushed over quickly. Take, for example, Brown’s relationship with his mother, which is given a considerable amount of attention during the film’s first hour, only to be largely forgotten about until the last twenty minutes.
The overall choices made by the filmmakers as to what they devote screen time to are all relatively unorthodox. The film spends a lot of time focusing on the impact that many different women had on Brown’s life, yet only two of his three wives are given screen time and neither are particularly well developed. The film also only alludes to Brown’s struggles with drug addiction in passing one-liners, and simplifies his involvement in the Civil Rights movement to one brief, albeit well directed, sequence. The film is focused solely on Brown’s rise to superstardom, which isn’t a necessarily bad decision, but one that makes for a rather simple-minded drama.
Luckily, the film’s one constant is the electric performance given by Chadwick Boseman. After his stoic but strong turn in another biopic, last year’s hugely entertaining 42, Boseman explodes on-screen in one of the best performances of the year thus far. While Boseman (wisely) only lip syncs along to Brown’s classic tracks, those are his real feet dancing along to the music, and his movements are not only realistic but a pleasure to watch. He’s also terrific in his dramatic moments, convincingly portraying Brown’s energy while channeling the tortured soul behind the legendary godfather of soul.
After directing a stellar ensemble in The Help, it should be no surprise that Taylor has an equally impressive cast with his sophomore feature. Nelsan Ellis, best known as True Blood’s Lafayette, gives a charismatic performance as Brown’s longtime partner and best friend, Bobby Byrd. The film also reunites Taylor with the stars of his previous feature, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, both of whom play women that had a significant impact on Brown’s life. Davis somehow manages to make Brown’s mother, who abandoned her son at a young age, a sympathetic character. Even with only two or three scenes, she once again proves that she’s amongst the best actresses working today. Spencer, who portrays Brown’s “Aunt Honey,” a brothel madam and his impromptu maternal influence. While her character could have used more development, Spencer exudes charm and steals her scenes.
Musical biographies tend to fall into the same pattern, and many suffer as a result. Taylor and his crew deserve credit for trying to shake up the formula, even if the nonlinear storytelling does occasionally work against it. Still, it’s hard to make James Brown boring, and the film offers audiences plenty of chances to enjoy the wonderful music, while also highlighting the immense impact he had on the music industry. Taylor’s talent for directing ensembles also comes into handy, as every member of the ensemble turns in a strong performance. While he’s still relatively new to Hollywood, his work here is exciting and offers a glimpse into a career filled with promise. If anything, Get On Up is worth watching for him.