Welcome to the resurgence of the Black biopic. Over the past two years, production has either began or been completed for films set to depict the lives of the iconic, progressive Black musicians of the 20th century: Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Get On Up, released tomorrow, has the daunting task of living up to the legend of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business and holding its own against the likes of Lady Sings the Blues, What’s Love Got to Do with It and Ray.
Judging from the trailers, Get On Up would presumably tell the story of James Brown— portrayed by Chadwick Boseman (who famously played another trailblazer, Jackie Robinson, in 42)—and how he created his groundbreaking catalog of hits like “Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feeling” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” by demanding the respect of White oppressors and apprehensive peers, while also answering many questions about his past.
That’s what was supposed to happen, but it didn’t quite get there. Get On Up is marred with historic omissions and poor editing choices, compromising an opportunity to tell a great story of a full life.
Director Tate Taylor (The Help) and sibling screenwriters John-Henry and Jez Butterworth seemingly couldn’t make up their minds on a storytelling angle. At times, the film goes the Ray route with childhood flashbacks, but because times periods awkwardly skip from 1988 to 1968 to 1939 to 1955, etc., Get On Up winds up more like a Quentin Tarantino flick, which is a bad way to tell a real man’s life story. The disjointed narrative at times gives the impression that J.B. had unfounded anger and arrogance.
Brown even breaks the fourth wall periodically, talking to the audience narrator style, an incredibly distracting element of the movie that may be too much to overlook for some viewers. And while the film does capture crucial moments in Brown’s life—i.e., his post-MLK assassination concert at Boston Garden—his essential influence on the hip-hop generation failed to be covered, and there’s only fleeting mention of how his revolutionary rhythm technique (landing his rhythms on “the one”) was implemented.
Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis play the parts of Brown’s auntie and mother, respectively. Pivotal roles in regards to the explanation of Brown’s drive and behavior as an adult, neither actress was on screen quite long enough to portray the affect they may have had on Brown. Even briefer was that of Brown’s wife DeeDee, played by Jill Scott for what may have been no more than a combined 15 minutes. It’s a shame Scott didn’t have more time to develop the importance of her character.
For all its flaws, Get On Up is still entertaining with many flashes of brilliance. Although Boseman’s portrayal of Mr. Dynamite sometimes walked the line between damn fine acting and caricature imitation, he’s particularly captivating during the riveting performance scenes of numbers like “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “Try Me” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” mastering Brown’s moves and exuding his magnetic charisma.
Boseman is especially convincing during his scenes with Bobby Byrd, Brown’s best friend and longtime band mate. In fact, the narrative of the bromance between Brown and Byrd is the film’s biggest saving grace. Played by Nelsan Ellis, Byrd was the catalyst for Brown’s ascension to stardom: assisting a young, incarcerated Brown with an early prison release, the formation of the Famous Flames, and his unwavering loyalty through lineup changes and record company politics. It’s the one consistent element of the movie that provided linearity.
With a life as grand and controversial as James Brown’s, it would’ve been difficult to fit every little thing he did into a space of 138 minutes. Viewers will be entertained, but ultimately, Get On Up is a truly great film trapped inside a somewhat moderate movie.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.