Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson
Written by: (also story) Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and (story) Steven Baigelman
Running Time: 139 mins
Release date: 21st November 2014
Flavour of the month in terms of cinematic genres is the biopic. There doesn’t seem to be a day when another one isn’t released. This time round we have the life story of one of show businesses most charismatic stars, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown and while he is the perfect subject matter for a biopic, this from the director of The Help and produced by Mick Jagger, has great performances, great set pieces but lacks a certain emotional element.
Heading to the stage in his twilight years, soul maestro James Brown thinks about his life, from his turbulent childhood days living in a shack with his violent parents, to ending up in jail which was the start of a lifelong friendship with Bobby Bryd and the beginning of a musical career that saw him rise quickly from obscurity to international superstar and activist. His egomaniac outbursts and violent attitude, it was the make and break of friendships and musical disagreements, yet he managed to keep his career afloat.
Tate Taylor’s film is not like most biopics and it would have been very easy for him to tell an A to Z life story of an eventful life. Instead, with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script, Taylor plays with time, has the lead characters breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience, as they narrate their way through Brown’s wild and sometimes uncontrolled life.
It doesn’t shy away from some of Brown’s more unsavory events, including his wife-beating, a scene that while shocking, is very well handled. It doesn’t go out to make him an angel but allows us to see Brown, warts and all. Yes, he was a musical genius and you can understand, listening to the excellent choices here, why he was nicknamed The Godfather Of Soul. It would have been easy for Taylor and Jagger (who was also musical supervisor) to go for the tunes that we all know and love, yet we get songs that are unfamiliar, live performances and rarities.
Yet with all these positives, the film lacks any real emotional punch. We watch and we enjoy for what it is but Brown doesn’t come across as a sympathetic character and so we find it hard to emote with him at his darkest hour, instead we feel he has brought these events on himself. It is his best friend and collaborator, Bobby Bryd, who we feel more sympathy with.
As the legendary performer, Chadwick Boseman is a revelation. From his time in jail to his last breath, Boseman becomes the man, capturing his vocal and physical attributes brilliantly. It is like watching the man alive and on the screen. He is funny, energetic and utterly believable. It’s a stellar performance and a name to look out for in the future.
It would be very easy to forget everyone else in the film, as it’s a powerhouse and commanding performance but Nelsan Ellis, in a less showy role as Bobby Bryd, is also a star making performance. Sticking with him through thick and thin, Ellis quietly compensates for Boseman’s more flashy lead and the balance works well. After his stint in True Blood, this should put Ellis on the map as an actor of great versatility.
Get On Up is a solid biopic that is filled with terrific tunes and is worthy for the performances. It does lack that emotional pull that most films have and you do feel on occasions that this was intended for awards instead of a piece of entertainment, even to the point you can see the Oscar clip. Yet as a celebration of a musical genius, it does exactly that. If you love the music, you won’t be disappointed.