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GET ON UP – Review

November 20, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


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Biopics are a tricky beast to pull off, and this take on the life of music legend James Brown falls into the all-too-common trap of biting off more than it can chew by trying to condense seventy-odd years into a two and a half hour movie.

From Brown’s challenging upbringing in rural Georgia, through the brief stint in prison that kickstarted his music career and on to his status as “the Godfather of Soul”, the film does its best to give us a complete picture of the singer’s life. Adopting an inventively used mixed up narrative, the script cleverly darts around Brown’s life in an order selected to suit the story’s emotional beats rather than tying itself down to chronological order. This allows some of the biggest moments in Brown’s life to have maximum impact, but can’t hide the fact that certain significant periods of his life are reduced to single scenes in an effort to save the running time.

Like all biopics worth their salt, it’s also happy to show Brown’s darker side, resisting the temptation to get caught up with adoration. The Brown shown in Get On Up is often callous, occasionally cruel and constantly self-obsessed. In the singer’s head his own name has a sort of anthemic power, with chants of ‘James Brown, James Brown, James Brown’ reverberating through the film’s runtime.

Of course, the brighter moments in his career are on show too, from helping to prevent a race riot in Boston following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., to performing for the troops stationed in Vietnam. The film never forgets the singer’s influence at the time, and the power that he had as a cultural leader for black Americans. Race is ever-present in the film, serving as part of the image of Brown as a self-made man, making it as a star despite the challenges that he faced.

This self-reliance is shown to be Brown’s core characteristic. Abandoned by his parents at a young age, we see a boy who learns to fend for himself become a man convinced that he has no need for anyone else. Of course, it’s this that ultimately drives the film, as we see him alienate himself from friends and family, unable to accept that anyone other than himself is responsible for his success.

That success was in large part down to his music, naturally, and this is one area where Get On Up shines. Wisely opting to use Brown’s own recordings instead of recording the cast, just about every musical number in the film sounds – and looks – spectacular. With songs this great it’s hard to go wrong, but the film’s costuming and choreography bring the songs to life, along with the neat touch of occasionally cutting in archive footage of the real Brown’s performances.

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None of this would matter one bit if the central performance didn’t convince, but Chadwick Boseman more than proves his worth, singlehandedly carrying the film at several points. He’s instantly charismatic, and it’s not hard to see why his Brown commands enough respect to insist that his own bandmates call him ‘Mr. Brown’. The film’s frequent musical scenes are where Boseman really shows his worth, however, with a stage presence (and dance moves) that could surely rival the real deal.

The rest of the cast are strong, especially True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, Brown’s right hand man. Ultimately though, it’s Boseman that makes the film memorable, and Get On Up deserves your attention for his performance alone. The film as a whole is rather over-stretched, and Brown’s life was clearly too rich and too eventful to ever fit into a single film in its entirety, but with Boseman at its heart at least it’s never dull.

Get On Up is available on DVD and Blu-ray from March 30th

Blu-ray Bonus Features:

Deleted/Extended/Alternate Scenes
Full Song Performances: Out of Sight, Steal Away (Steal Away to Jesus)
Extended Song Performances
Long Journey to the Screen
Chadwick Boseman: Meet Mr. James Brown
The Get On Up Family
On Stage with the Hardest Working Man
The Founding Father of Funk
Tate Taylor’s Master Class
Feature Commentary with Director/Producer Tate Taylor

Dominic Preston