2014 seems to be the year of revisiting the lives of musical legends, Jersey Boys in June and now Get on Up starring Chadwick Boseman who is music legend James Brown in this entertaining biopic. It has to be said that the casting for the two main leads in this cinematic look-back at the “Godfather of Soul” with his humble and poverty stricken beginnings is spot on. Boseman gives his version of Brown a living breathing reality that feels real right down to the splits he does onstage.
The choice of the splendid actor Nelsan Ellis to play Bobby Byrd, founder of the gospel singing group the Gospel Starlighters and then after several name changes the Flames, was inspirational to say the least. Apart from resembling the real Byrd, Ellis is an award winning actor who has portrayed Lafayette Reynolds in True Blood since the show’s start in 2008. He brings a sort of tired acceptance to role of Brown’s number-two man. Ellis also proves that his acting chops are not limited to television roles in the soul biopic.
Get On Up as directed by Tate Taylor, who did a wonderful job with the 2011 film The Help, is a well paced recounting of Brown’s early life and his rise through the music world. Interestingly, two stars from The Help make appearances in this Brown biopic. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer both of whom had large roles in the 2011 Emma Stone vehicle, have roles in Taylor’s film.
These two powerhouse actresses proved that no matter what size part they have, they are capable of knocking it out of the park in terms of performance. Viola Davis plays Brown’s mother, who leaves when he is a young boy and Octavia Spencer plays the local madam of a house of prostitution who takes the youngster in when his father deserts him to join the army.
A quick mention needs to be made of Dan Aykroyd’s portrayal of manager Ben Bart and Brandon Smith’s role as Little Richard. Aykroyd continues to show that his acting chops are improving with age with his latest performance. Smith, who works primarily on television, gives his version of Little Richard a humorous edge and this actor looks more than ready to move on up to the big screen.
The lead actor, Chadwick Boseman is music legend James Brown in Get On Up and he plays the man with a combination of gritty determination, jovial self confidence and a huge touch of arrogance that can, and does, grate on those who work for him. Boseman feels perfect as the singer, even when he looks straight at the camera and talks to the audience as Brown. This technique, used so well in the 1966 British film Alfie and a little in Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys, gives the actor an edge to his characterization, and it feels as though he is letting the viewer in on his real personality.
The film itself jumps time sequences in a nonsequential order. Scenes in the “present” will suddenly dart back to the past, often to show just how Brown got to where he was or to bring up why he felt the way he did. This type of delivery for the story of this legendary performer felt a bit like a montage intermixed with the actual film. Using flashbacks to Brown’s backstory in a way that works brilliantly for the movie.
Another thing that works very well for the film is the inclusion of the music. Of course no biopic of the “Godfather of Soul” would work without it. The constant use of Brown’s legacy keeps the audience’s toes tapping and heads bobbing with the beat of the music while watching the story unfold of just how the singer and songwriter rose to the top of his profession and influenced generations of musicians.
The film is not just a sugar coated re-telling of Brown’s life either. It touches on the issue of domestic violence, which dogged the performer his entire life, his stints in jail, his bands displeasure and ultimate departure because of money issues and the singer’s problems with the IRS.
It also shows the “backdrop” of America’s problems with racial issues; in both indirect instances, such as one of the record producers talking about the “chitlin'” circuit, and directly. Including James Brown’s Boston concert which was given the day after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated the movie ensures that the audience remembers the “backdrop” of the times.
The film does not pay a lot of attention to the performer’s drug problems, although it is hinted at in one scene in particular. Overall this trip down memory lane, with Chadwick Boseman who is the music legend that was James Brown, was enjoyable, touching and revealing. Get On Up opens in cinemas across the U.S. on August 1, 2014. Fans of Brown will not want to miss this entertaining look at his life and his music.
By Michael Smith
AMC Town Square 18