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Review: Get on Up (2014)

Get on Up (2014)

Directed by: Tate Taylor

Premise: A biography of James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) charting his life from his humble childhood to superstardom. 

What Works: The most critical element of every biographical motion picture is the casting of the central character. This is especially important in movies about ubiquitous figures. People who reach levels of fame the likes of James Brown are so familiar to viewers that bad casting or off-key performances can instantly sink the movie. Get on Up features Chadwick Boseman in the lead and Boseman does a terrific job in the role. James Brown was a legendary figure and people who achieve iconic celebrity status also tend to become caricatures. Boseman has the voice and physicality that are intrinsic to the public image of the Godfather of Soul but underneath the glamour is a flesh and blood human being and the actor is able to connect the myth with reality. Boseman is given a great assist by the makeup and costuming talents of Get on Up who transform the actor into the figure we all know as James Brown. The production design of Get on Up is also frequently impressive but in an understated way. The locations are of their time without looking like movie sets and the film frequently has an authentic feel of its era. Aside from the casting, the other critical aspect of a biographical story like this is the musical sequences and the filmmakers of Get on Up capture the energy and sexuality of Brown’s music. Although the musical scenes are mostly dubbed over with Brown’s actual recordings, it never looks like Boseman is lip synching and like the look of the film, its musical sound is also impeccably organic. Speaking of the music, Get on Up co-stars Dan Aykroyd as manager Ben Bart and there are several moments that fans of The Blues Brothers will find amusing. 

What Doesn’t: A common problem of biographical stories is that the narratives tend to be a series of disconnected anecdotes that do not form a coherent story. Get on Up does have several consistent narrative threads, most notably the relationship between James Brown and Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and between Brown and his parents (Viola Davis and Lennie James). However, none of these narrative strands are compelling enough to serve as the foundation for the story. Brown’s relationship with his parents is limited to a handful of scenes and the matter is virtually dropped in the second half of the picture. Byrd is present throughout the film but there isn’t enough tension and very little is at stake in the relationship. The narrative problems become really obvious in the ending and the movie ends without really reaching a conclusion. The story of Get on Up is not linear and the narrative jumps forward and backward in time. At any given point it’s generally clear where the story is on the timeline of events but there is no apparent rationale for why the story makes these leaps and it rarely makes for interesting juxtapositions of past and present. The movie is also troubled thematically. The bulk of Get on Up takes place during the civil rights movement of the 1960s but it only makes passing reference to those events. When the filmmakers try to shoehorn the movement into James Brown’s life there is no context for how one relates to the other. Even more problematic is the filmmaker’s regard for Brown’s personal flaws. As dramatized in the film, Brown cheated his band members out of money and beat his wives. But while the movie includes these unfortunate parts of his life they are not presented in such a way that Brown has to atone for it or the audience has to reconcile the man and his myth. As a result, Get on Up comes across as compromised between a hagiography and a critical character study but it does not do either approach very well.
Bottom Line: Get on Up is a mixed effort. The movie has a terrific central performance and when it concentrates on the music it’s a lot of fun. But like James Brown himself, this movie is hounded by fundamental flaws that it is never able to reconcile. 

Episode: #503 (August 10, 2014)