Whereas most biopics suffer from cramming either too much or too little of its subject’s life into a standard running time, Tate Taylor’s warts-and-all examination of James Brown hits that sweet spot that eludes most of its ilk. Get On Up digs deep into what made the Godfather of Soul tick, what drove him towards fame with a single-minded ferocity, and what caused him to alienate those closest to him in the process, and it does so with a deft hand and appropriate amount of flair.
Brown (played as an adult by Chadwick Boseman) came from the humblest of beginnings — he was stillborn in a shack deep in the woods of South Carolina — and fashioned himself into a self-styled music legend and self-proclaimed “Hardest Working Man in Show Business”. Given that his influences can be felt in just about every genre of pop music to spring up since the 1950s one is inclined to take his word for it.
Much of what makes Get On Up work so well is Taylor’s approach to his subject, telling the man’s story in a non-linear, thematic fashion that flashes forwards and backwards as necessary, referencing one event to put another into context. Taking such artistic risks with a biography can — and often do — blow up in a filmmaker’s face (see The Iron Lady — or better yet, don’t), but Taylor uses this approach with over-indulging. Occasionally, he even defies our sensibilities entirely, with Brown sometimes breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly.
Clint Eastwood used the device in the recent dud Jersey Boys, and the effect there was minimal, largely because that movie was a reheated adaptation of a formulaic jukebox musical about a group of minimal impact and even less interest. Brown proves to be a far more compelling subject, and a thoroughly gripping one in the hands of Boseman, who burst into the mainstream last year playing baseball legend Jackie Robinson in another biopic, 42. His performance is electric, and his ability to replicate Brown’s raspy voice, unique dance moves, and strutting, limitless bravado puts him on the level of Jamie Foxx in Ray and Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line. He also plows full bore into Brown’s darker side, his anger and abusiveness, his insecurities and resentments, and his colossal ego.
Get On Up still suffers from some of the same deficiencies that usually dog biographical films (i.e., anyone whose life was large enough to warrant a biopic typically lived a life too big to be encapsulated by one) and commits the genre’s inherent sin of cherry-picking scenes from its subject’s life, and at times it is disjointed. Nevertheless, the movie succeeds where counts, giving us a suitably embellished take on the man.