Review: Get On Up
PLOT: The life and times of James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) – from his painful childhood to his rise to the top of the charts. Along the way, Brown has trouble with the law as well as his own band, all the while alienating his best friend and band-mate Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis).
REVIEW: When I heard that THE HELP’s Tate Taylor would be directing a big-studio, PG-13 James Brown biopic, I couldn’t help but be wary. I mean, James Brown, PG-13? How could they ever think of making an at least somewhat truthful account of his life without making it a hard-R? Sure enough, GET ON UP is whitewashed to an almost ludicrous degree, with the result being a reverent biopic that may sell tickets, but certainly won’t give anyone real insight into what made the man tick.
No one could ever deny that Brown deserved the title “The Godfather of Soul” but making such a bland, almost cuddly story trivializes his life and robs the audience of what could have been a really great “warts and all” biopic if someone a bit edgier had been at the helm. For his part, Taylor does a decent job, but raw and edgy is not his thing. GET ON UP feels like a Lifetime biopic, only with a bigger budget. Things that might have made the film compelling are conveniently overlooked, with the racism of the era being confined to a ridiculous cameo by Allison Janney, and two admittedly harrowing flashbacks, one of which finds a young Brown being forced to participate in a brutal boxing match as country club entertainment.
For better or worse, GET ON UP feels like the kind of movie James Brown would have wanted made about his life, which was probably producer Mick Jagger’s goal, but in the process Brown becomes more of a cartoon character than a full-fledged person. The fact that GET ON UP almost works is largely due to star Chadwick Boseman. While the handsome Boseman doesn’t really look like Brown, he’s got the mannerisms down pat. While the Brown originals are used for all the performances, he does a really good job evoking the man’s spectacular stage presence, although off-stage, it sometimes feels like you’re watching an extension of the old Eddie Murphy SNL sketches rather than a full-on biopic.
Casting the likable Boseman also allows them to skirt some of the more controversial aspects of his life. Brown had a bad reputation as a domestic abuser, but his troubled third marriage is omitted completely. The only acknowledgement of this is a scene where he slaps his second wife (off-screen) and then breaks the fourth wall, looking at the audience pleadingly. One nasty thing GET ON UP does is flashback to Brown’s admittedly awful upbringing anytime he does anything bad, which is clumsy, “connect-the-dots” style filmmaking. It feels like they’re trying to make excuses for his behavior.
Supporting Boseman as long-time Brown pal Bobby Byrd is TRUE BLOOD’s Nelsan Ellis, who gives the movie the heart and soul it’s otherwise lacking. Ellis is a fine actor and does a really good job conveying Byrd’s resentment as his increasingly shabby treatment at Brown’s hands, as well as his ultimate loyalty to both the man and his music. Dan Aykroyd has a nice supporting part as a record company exec who takes Brown under his wing, while Octavia Spencer is underused as Brown’s beloved Aunt Honey, a bordello madam with a heart of gold. Viola Davis has a small but gutsy turn as Brown’s absentee mother, while Lennie James makes the most of his screen time as his vicious, violent father.
In the end, GET ON UP is glossy, MTV-style film-making. Anything controversial about Brown is glossed over, from his drug use (you briefly see him smoke PCP) to his legal problems (which leads to a ridiculously over-the-top car chase Brown liked to tell people about but has since been disproved) to his support of Richard Nixon in the seventies, which arguably led to his mid-career slump (which is ignored). While nobody has the right to judge a man’s life, to gloss it over and turn it into this kind of family-friendly “Oscar-bait” ultimately short-changes the man and his legacy, as walking out of GET ON UP, I never felt like I knew anything more about him than I knew going in. In the end, Brown comes off as incredibly two-dimensional, while the man himself was anything but.