There are lots of typecasts in Hollywood. Melissa McCarthy always plays a slacker. Liam Neeson always plays a badass. And Chadwick Boseman plays influential African Americans in biopics. This time around, instead of portraying Jackie Robinson, Boseman takes on the role of the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown.
“Get On Up” tells the tale of James Brown, from his troubled childhood to his rise to fame all the way until his final days. Nelsan Ellis stars as Bobby Byrd, Brown’s longtime friend, and Dan Aykroyd plays Brown’s manager. Tate Taylor, made famous by “The Help”, directs here.
I love me a well-done biopic. Any film that is set in the past, particularly in the 1950’s and 60’s like this film is, instantly should earn bonus points with me. It’s what made me enjoy “Jersey Boys” and “J. Edgar” more than other people. However “Get On Up”, despite featuring a dedicated performance from Chadwick Boseman, is a basic biopic, and doesn’t feature anything too fun or engaging.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again here, because it’s true: sometimes an actor does such a good job in a role that it exposes the rest of the film for how truly mediocre it is. It happened with Denzel Washington in “Flight” and this year with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in “A Most Wanted Man” and it happens again here in “Get On Up”.
Boseman is at times electric as Brown, and portrays him from ages 17 to 73. He immerses himself into the role and much like with Robinson in “42”, you truly believe you are watching a documentary of Brown, instead of an actor portraying him.
However, the film around Boseman is average. While it doesn’t sugarcoat or ignore Brown’s demons, such as drug use or money issues, it does choose to discuss them in limited amounts, never having the guts to fully pull back the curtain.
The biggest thing the film does wrong, however, is its use of non-linear story telling. The film opens in 1988, only to jump to the 60’s in the next scene, 1939 in the scene after that and then ends up in the 1950’s. Confused? Yeah, it’s not much easier watching the film, even with time stamps on screen.
Example of how confusing this choice of narrative is: Brown’s mother comes to one of his shows and then comes back stage to introduce herself. The film then cuts to a flashback of James’ mother ignoring him, and then goes to an entirely unrelated scene altogether. When they finally return to the mother backstage, it has probably been 25 minutes, and you forgot completely that the first scene had happened.
Aside from Boseman, what the film does do well is the music. All of the musical scenes are toe-tapping and infectious, with a few interesting shots by Taylor, such as cutting to TV-quality, or slowing down to see what Brown is taking in while on stage.
“Get On Up” gets some brownie points for trying not to be the cliché biopic, however it really shot itself in the foot with its constant shake up of the place and time. Boseman is worth checking it out, but especially with a running time of 2:18, this looks more like a decent Redbox movie.
Brown occasionally turns to the camera to address the audience, and at one point warns them, “if you look backward, you’re dead”. I find those words ironic, as every time the film takes us on a trip down memory lane, it becomes less and less lively.
Critics Rating: 6/10