Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott, Craig Robinson, Aloe Blacc
"You may not own any of my records," James Brown tells a reporter early on in Tate Taylor's biopic of the Godfather of Soul, "but the records you do own sure got some of me on them." Few can name more than three of Brown's records, but no other artist played such an influential role in shaping the sound of the latter half of 20th century popular music. As with most music biopics, Get on Up does little to convey its subject's importance.
Rather than honing in on a specific event in his protagonist's life, a tactic employed by the best biopics, Taylor and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth attempt to cover his entire life, resulting in a rambling incoherent mess, albeit one peppered with hints of the thrilling movie this could and should have been. Things start promisingly, as we see a drug-addled 1988 version of Brown wielding a shotgun, angered at his office bathroom being used by a stranger. We then quickly cut to Brown dodging missiles in Vietnam while performing for the troops, convinced of his safety through sheer ego.
It's when we cut to Brown's childhood that the movie becomes troublesome, as his hardship is glossed over in chic-tragic fashion. A lot of Brown is glossed over, given how much Taylor attempts to cram into the movie. Every time it seems the movie is about to slow down for a key moment, it quickly cuts to another flashback or flash forward, often seemingly at random. Brown's domestic violence is given short shrift, with one seconds long glimpse at the beatings his wife Dee Dee suffered. Going into this aspect of Brown's psyche may not have improved the movie, but it feels like something of an injustice to Dee Dee to handle it in such a throwaway manner. Likewise Brown's musical acolytes are often portrayed merely as hangers on, despite including the likes of Bobby Byrd and Maceo Parker, soul legends in their own right.
What prevents the movie from becoming a total disaster is the magnetic central performance of Chadwick Boseman. Not only does he get Brown's mannerisms down pat, he also possesses some serious footwork, but sadly the camera never lingers long enough to allow us to appreciate his dance skills.
If you want to learn about James Brown, buy one of his records. You'll get the man straight away. Despite its 2.5 hour running time, Get on Up provides little insight.
By Eric Hillis