Biopics are hard to pull off. They usually feature great performances, but the films themselves end up being too ambitious trying to fit too much in. They attempt to compress an entire life into a 2-hour narrative, and the result is a choppy bunch of episodes strung together (see recent efforts The Iron Lady, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom). Within the first 10 minutes of Get On Up, we’ve already jumped between 3 different ages of James Brown and you start thinking that this is going to become disjointed. Well, you’d be wrong. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have created a precise, assured film that knows exactly what its destination is.
There’s a reason they are showing you the moments they do throughout the film. Scenes aren’t meant to be a “greatest hits” package of Brown’s life, but instead an ingredient to the final depiction they are presenting of the man. Like his previous film, The Help, Taylor creates a crowd-pleasing, highly entertaining film that still delivers an emotional wallop, but he couldn’t have done that alone. He’s got a leading man that delivers an astounding performance.
Chadwick Boseman, who took on portraying Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42, is taking on another iconic real-life role, and it couldn’t be more different. Jackie Robinson couldn’t fight back against the racism he was surrounded by, so Boseman had to internalize his emotions as the famous baseball player. James Brown is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. He’s a larger-than-life, loud, brazen character, and Boseman nails it. With the over-the-top wigs and distinct voice, this could easily gone into a parody of The Godfather Of Soul, but Boseman goes beyond just doing a dead-on impression. He presents James as a real man. He’s funny, scary, charismatic, unpredictable, and most importantly, a force of life. There’s even moments where Boseman has to talk directly to the camera. Breaking the fourth wall is a tough thing to make work, but Boseman just owns it.
Supporting him is True Blood‘s Nelsan Ellis, as his right hand man Bobby Byrd, along with Dan Aykroyd, Aunjanue Ellis, Craig Robinson, Lennie James, Brandon Smith (great as Little Richard), real-life musicians Aloe Blacc and Jill Scott, and Cougar Town’s Josh Hopkins. Taylor gets The Help of two of his former cast: Viola Davis (who got a Best Actress nomination) and Octavia Spencer (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), who play the maternal characters in James’ life. They don’t have large roles, but each get a showcase scene that shows how talented they are. Spencer, playing his Aunt, gets to tell the story of Brown’s challenging birth, while Davis gets a wallop of a scene in the film’s final act. If you’re paying attention another The Help alum, Allison Janney, pops up for a brief cameo.
As the film reaches its conclusion, you start to have a deep understanding of James Brown. He often talks about how consistent “the groove” is. The groove never leaves you. With his tumultuous childhood, you realize the groove is the only thing that James is willing to fully trust and let in. His relationships with the people around him are complicated and you understand why. He’s a damaged soul, but a brilliant one. As his young self says straight to the camera towards the end of the film, “I paid the costs to be the boss” (such a powerful moment).
This is Hollywood at its best. It’s a fun film with a big heart that is, just like James Brown, firing on all cylinders to please its audience. Get On Up should be remembered come Oscar time, with the Boss himself, Chadwick Boseman, absolutely deserving a Best Actor nomination, and possible win.