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Film Review: Get On Up (James Brown Biopic)


Written By Leslie Pitt



The musical biopic suffers from the similar issues that we’ve recently reserved for fantasy/sci-fi/comic movies. The film is released and a hardcore contingent will gripe at the “authenticity” of the piece. Are all the facts correct? Are they in the right place? For myself, the biopic doesn’t necessarily need to be “right” to be on point. I do need a musical biopic to get me invested into the work and spirit of the artist that’s being portrayed. It shouldn’t take too many liberties, but the biopic must be able to straddle both the history as well as the sense of entertainment that the performer themselves would give. Get on Up; the musical biopic of funk and RnB legend James Brown, struggles with the balance, but holds a lead performance who can happily carry the weight upon on his glossy, purple clothed shoulders.

As with many musical biopics, Get on Up suffers from common issues found within the sub-genre. The narrative arc obviously rises and falls with each convenient hit track. The ex-wife makes angry appearances. Aspects such as overspending and womanising are forced into signposted info dumps while we have to see the struggling artist, warm the soul of the one rich person who’s willing to give him a chance. We get the long suffering best friend who sticks by the artist and of course the winking nod of the other talented individual who sends the artist on their way, but can only be seen in one scene, because they’re equally as well known in real life and it’s not their movie (although Brendon Smith steals his scene as Little Richard). And yes, let me just say it now, when the artist hits rock bottom, drugs are of course involved.

I kept most of the above paragraph generic because, as we’ve seen in other musical biopics (Ray being the most notable), these elements seldom feel fresh. It’s not to say that these things didn’t happen to James Brown, but as with previous musical bios, such points are quite typically portrayed. We don’t expect such moments to surprise. Even the film’s offbeat approach to the narrative does little to hide the seams. At his lowest ebb, a stoned Brown joyrides a truck and brings it to a halt when the cops gain the upper hand. As Brown steps out of the car, he is shown as his childhood self. This is something that makes sense in the narrative, as one of the film’s themes is about Brown’s lost innocence, but feels too obvious as a motif.

None of this truly matters, however, as Chadwick Boseman’s star making performance, coupled with the downright funkiness of Brown’s musical material makes the film worth watching. I can honestly say, as a film fan who is not too interested in Awards, I’ll be disappointed if Boseman is not a frontrunner. His charm continuously pulls the film up from its bootstraps, while his mannerisms are note perfect. Boseman’s poise and understanding of Brown as a persona is just too strong to ignore. Now signed on as The Black Panther for the next wave of Marvel movies; this will make him well-known, but it’ll be Get on Up that will show the man’s formidable talents.

Director Tate Taylor does well to harness Boseman’s energy anyway he can. The musical sequences crackle, while the screenplays humour is well drawn out due to the display. The chemistry shared between Boseman and Nelsen Ellis as Bobby Byrd is also sizeable, although the cast as a whole all do well to feed off the central performance.

It becomes clear that Boseman’s portrayal is stronger than the screenplay’s, which does a good job broadening the appeal of Brown and sanitising a lot of his controversy. Taylor uses a novel choice of having Brown break the forth wall and address the audience. Yet without some of James’ wilder stories, the idea is only able to go so far. It’s interesting to compare this with not only Taylor Hackford Ray (2005), which, while very entertaining, brings similar issues with it, but also Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (2013), which is far less hesitant in approaching its subject’s darker shades.

In the same way of the likes of Ray or Notorious (2009), Get on Up doesn’t tell the full warts and all story (then again with the producer’s being Brian Glazer and Mick Jagger, why would it?).

Despite this, it’s hard not to get whipped up in the infectious nature of Boseman’s portrayal of Brown. Get on Up is far from perfect, but it is an entertaining feature which should get, those who enjoy Brown to dust off their LP’s and younger watchers to look him up on Wikipedia. In essence, that’s all we need a biopic to do.


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