“As soon as you hear that groove, I know I got you.”
In music, there are artists, performers, and icons. Many in the business fit in the first two groups, but few ascend to icon status. James Brown was unequivocally one of these few people. Get On Up takes us into the story of James Brown (Chadwick Boseman), and it isn’t a particularly pleasant one. From early on in his life, Brown is presented with many obstacles, such as a lack of education, a volatile home situation, and a world that is still unfavorable to African-Americans, both subtlety and overtly.
But some are destined for greatness regardless of the impediments put in front of them, and James was one of those people. His unfortunate experiences did impact his life down the line in later years, but even in his twilight he was gifted. Quite simply, he was a truly super bad man with a crazy amount of soul.
Back in the 90’s, my parents always used to play this James Brown cassette tape in the car (we had an old car). I didn’t know much about James Brown, but I knew that I loved his stuff. It wasn’t until I got into my preteen and teen years that I started realizing that so many of my favorite rap, R&B, and even rock tracks took lots of inspiration from Mr. Dynamite, whether legally through sample or otherwise. He was, and still is a big deal, and Get On Up does a wonderful job of driving home this point.
The movie is essentially a biography however of James Brown’s life, and it is here where it underwhelms. It takes a nonlinear progression of moments in Brown’s life, vibrating back and forth between years and even decades. Get On Up has no issues with jumping from the 80’s to the 40’s to the 60’s and back to the 40’s again, in different combinations nonetheless. This progression doesn’t completely mar the whole piece, but does sort of force the audience to “recalibrate” where the story is. For me at least, it sometimes took a minute or so to catch up on where the movie was.
And, since this is Brown’s life chronicle, it isn’t just about the music. But, the attention some of the personal moments get either do not receive enough time, or they are thrown in at the last moment. This is a little harder to describe without spoiling certain instances, but a few things just happen with little to no build. It may not have been a necessity for the movie to be linear, but perhaps a slightly more standard way of storytelling would have made for a more cohesive story.
So with the disappointing story execution, what makes Get On Up groove? The answer is simple: Chadwick Boseman. He hasn’t been in a ton lately, but has put in very solid work playing Jackie Robinson in 42 and as draft hopeful Vontae Mack in Draft Day over the past year. I’m not going to claim that I know all of his work (most consists of TV appearances), but from what I have seen, this portrayal of Brown is easily his best to this point. From the swagger in his walk, to the mannerisms and inflections of spoken words, and the raw charisma exuded, Boseman is outstanding.
James Brown was a dynamic individual in all senses but especially on stage, only rivaled by Michael Jackson as a performer. Without missing a beat, Chadwick captures what Brown repeatedly brought daily and nightly on the grandstand. It is a completely flawless performance, and one where he never appears to be overwhelmed with the character. Though it may only be August, this is one of the stronger acting roles of the whole year. The only time where his performance stumbles are during the out of place fourth wall breakers speaking to the audience, and really, you can’t blame Boseman for their inclusion.
The movie is carried on the shoulders of Chadwick Boseman, but others also give adequate help. Nelsan Ellis plays Brown’s best friend and bandmate Bobby Byrd, and while the character obviously isn’t as bold as Brown, his performance is good as the literal and figurative support of Brown. Likewise, Dan Aykroyd doesn’t have a huge part, but plays an effective role as the sort of father James never truly had. Even people like Craig Robinson, Octavia Spencer (small role), and Jill Scott put their imprints in this one.
Get on Up also serves as a mini-period piece as well, and director Tate Taylor does a great job of making the film feel like it is in the respective decade(s). But where he really excels happens to be during the many performance scenes. Different camera angles and perspectives are used, including James’, that of his background mates, and the audience. The energy during these scenes is so infectious, and next to Boseman, serve as a main reason to watch this movie. Those performance scenes work so wonderfully though because of the licensed music. Nothing in the film is covered or “original”, and it is all the better for it. If you don’t bob your head or tap your feet at least a few times, I don’t know what to tell you.
While the actual story may hit flat notes from time to time, Get On Up succeeds on the strength of a stellar Chadwick Boseman and the raw vibrancy it brings to the silver screen. It is a funky enough tribute to a man often known as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”
Photo credits go to movienewsplus.com.
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