You could do a whole separate film about Mr Brown’s myriad personal issues. You could probably do a whole film based just on the impact of Brown’s music during the Vietnam War (covered in a single scene here) but as the story of James Brown the performer, GET ON UP is a very rewarding two-and-a-half hours.
Born to an impoverished family in rural South Carolina, James Brown (Jamarion Scott/Jordan Scott) was dealt a duff hand early in life. His mother Susie (Viola Davis) abandons him and his father Joe (Lennie James) unable to provide, dumps him with relatives. After a spell in prison, the now adult James (Chadwick Boseman) falls in love with music and quickly becomes a superstar, and eventually one of the key voices in funk and soul, and music in general in the 20th Century. Told non-chronologically, Get on Up presents us with snapshots of James Brown’s life and career resulting in a colourful collage of a complex man.
I might be wrong, but I don’t think Chadwick Boseman did much of his own singing, instead being dubbed with Brown’s numerous live recordings for his performance scenes. I don’t begrudge this however, Boseman is a magnetic presence, and he moves just like the Godfather of Soul, and singing in addition to dancing to the level of Brown might have been asking a bit much of an actor.
I can’t fathom why director Tate Taylor and his writers felt there was a need to tone down Brown’s story. Surely, a life so full of drug-taking, romances and frequent nastiness should actually depict some or all of the above. We get a glimpse of Brown mixing something into his cigarette, and another brief scene of domestic violence, but apart from seeing his quick temper and him patronising his bandmates, we never really actually see Brown’s darker side (and boy, did he have one of those). It’s not like making it darker, rawer, would make it any less marketable. It might even have caused it to make a bigger splash at awards season. It could have been a legal thing, but other that that I can’t think of a reason for this slightly sanitised telling of James Brown’s life and times.
I’m not sure we needed Boseman as Brown occasionally breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, either. If you’re going to do something like this, you’ve really got to go for it – it’s got to be theatrical and over-the-top (think BRONSON) in order to make a point. If you do it three times at most in your otherwise grounded film, it can come across as a little smug, a needless additional frilly element to your already overstuffed story. Also unnecessary is dividing the story into chapters with lurid orange titles emblazoned across the screen. The plot does leap back and forth in time a fair bit, but the filmmakers could give us credit as an audience to notice the changing fashions and subtle age makeup to work out where we are in the story. It’s just a little inelegant.
Strange stylistic choices aside, the film has a lot to offer. The performance scenes are lively and well-executed, the period details make the film world richer and more believable. Boseman, as already mentioned, is mesmerising and has his subject’s Southern drawl down (though he’s far better looking than the real Brown), but the supporting players all impress as well. Of particular note is Nelson Ellis as Brown’s endlessly cool-headed, patient and faithful collaborator Bobby Byrd, Dan Aykroyd’s slick and well-meaning producer Ben Bart and Viola Davis with her brief but high-impact turn as Brown’s fragile mother who walked out on him as a boy.
Get on Up is a good film. It’s well acted, good-looking and entertaining and it won’t make you feel like you’ve wasted 140 minutes of your life. It’s got the funk, to paraphrase Mr B. But after sitting for a pretty lengthy period of time to be told a story, I felt like I really should know more about the central figure. Aspects of James Brown’s life – usually the nastier ones – just aren’t covered in enough depth by this particular biopic. They’re not ignored, just hurried past, and that’s a shame. I’d be more forgiving of half-baked aesthetic and storytelling choices if we were getting the full story. I would recommend seeing Get on Up, but with the proviso that you pray to one day get a James Brown film that’s a little braver. SSP