During a rehearsal scene in Get on Up
, James Brown asks each of his band members what instrument they're playing. Horn? Wrong. Guitar? Nope. Oh, it may look like that in their hands, but as far as the Godfather of Soul is concerned, they're all playing the drums. That adherence to music as a rhythmic, booty-shaking exercise — along with originality and miles and miles of charisma — are what made Brown the icon he is to this day. And it's the reason we have such an entertaining, if imperfect, biopic based on the late entertainer's life.
Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed Jackie Robinson in 42
, delivers a showy, compelling lead performance that focuses on Brown's surfaces — the bluster, gravelly voice and lazy speech patterns that sometimes test the ear's ability to understand what he's saying. The way Get on Up
is put together adds some depth to the character's journey. Because director Tate Taylor (The Help
) and his filmmakers bounce around eras in Brown's life, events in various periods gain in meaning set in relief against one another. Seen from the perspective of his childhood, Brown's success looks to be inevitable — as well as a tremendous overcoming of adversity, including racism, poverty and a broken family. Effective artistic touches abound, like edits that emphasize his destiny of greatness. One wonderfully surreal scene finds the adolescent Brown lying woozy on a boxing canvas, watching a jazz band play and reimagining a funky, James Brown version of what he's hearing.
For most of the film, Brown's constant companion is fellow bandmate Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who is portrayed here as key to Brown's entrance into the music business, and is almost unfailingly loyal — that "almost" providing the source of some of the movie's tension and confrontations. Byrd admires Brown, and it is his admiration that is meant to guide ours as well. The music itself does that just fine on its own, and there's plenty of it to enjoy.
Because the movie presents Brown's story as a series of "big moments," there's a lot that's not being shared, that would reveal Brown as more than the image he presented to his cohorts and the world. We never get any insight into the relationships between him and his children or his wives, and his arrests and incidents of domestic abuse are downplayed. (One such scene of abuse is dramatized as the prelude to lovemaking, and it's meant to charm and amuse rather than disturb. Another scene, of Brown hitting his wife, feels like a soapy diversion.)
The movie keeps us at enough of a remove from its subject that we only get to know him through his bluster and his music. And yet it still makes for an incredibly entertaining experience; because of its spotlighting those two elements, Get on Up
is less about Brown the man than Brown the icon who can entertain audiences. And within those parameters, the movie works very well. As he did in real-life interviews, this version of Brown often refers to himself in the third person. But rather than come across as arrogant, Brown seems like he's acknowledging his value as a man, a sensible response to racism and a way of affirming his dignity and importance. He, like the movie, recognizes his own greatness. Get on Up
makes an entertaining and convincing argument that he was right — at least with regard to the larger-than-life public persona he embraced.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Tate Taylor. Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Lennie James, Jill Scott, Dan Aykroyd. Now playing.