This past month has given us several films that one could describe as biopics but Tate Taylor’s Get on Up, about the life of James Brown, is certainly the truest to the genre. At a thorough 2 hours 20 minutes and with a $30 million budget spent on big hair, music samples and respectable acting talent, the film is very reminiscent of the now ten-year-old Ray and if you like James Brown, you’ll find Get on Up a very good film.
James Joseph Brown (Chadwick Boseman) was born into extreme poverty but his resolve to ‘always do right by himself’ elevated him into becoming The Godfather of Soul.
Like Ray, Get on Up starts with the man, not the child and makes use of almost dreamlike flashbacks and cut scenes. Screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth deliver a bit of a mixed bag: when he’s caught after a police chase, the child version of James Brown steps out the car to confront the officers, an example of how some of the film’s symbolism can be a little inelegant, whereas a soulful imagining of a battle royal in which Brown is forced to fight was a fantastic idea and a great scene.
Good or bad, the overall affect for the audience is like watching a roughcut. Spike Lee’s Inside Man had the same affect: a solid film but one that seems to be messing around with several different styles. The little pieces Chadwich Boseman gives to camera feel straight out of Beau Willimon’s House of Cards and the montaged finale of various performances and moments from the film (a fun moment mind you) is similar to that which ended 20 000 Days on Earth. Ultimately this diversity makes Get on Up a little more interesting than most biopics.
Yet, for the most part, Get on Up gives us what we expect because of its great soundtrack, cool costumes and settings and a strong cast playing variously quirky characters from James Brown’s life. The cast are the strongest part of the film – Dan Akroyd and Octavia Spencer perform very well and Nelsan Ellis skilfully takes on the very difficult task of playing Brown’s gentler friend and long-time partner Bobby Byrd, who’s constantly being dwarfed by James Brown.
However it’s Chadwick Boseman who dominates the film. Like Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner or Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Chadwick proves himself able to take on the gruelling part of acting in creating mannerisms for Brown and having to age throughout the film. Surprisingly, Boseman is rather understated, often showing a lot of subtlety in more intimate scenes – especially for a characters who can be brash with his wives and bandmates and is the hardest working man in show business on stage. Sadly Get on Up’s failure to sell itself (only making a single million in profits so far and receiving little promotion from Universal in Europe) has probably stymied the praise Boseman deserves for his performance.
But even if Boseman must wait until Avengers: Age of Ultron to be on the cover of magazines, he and his collaborators can at least be proud of a very entertaining film.