GET ON UP
Written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth
Directed by Tate Taylor
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis and Dan Aykroyd
Ben Bart: Just do your thing James, it’s worked for you so far.
In his song “Super Bad”, James Brown commands, “Watch me!” and, boy, is his biography in GET ON UP compulsively watchable. Tate Taylor’s biopic of the Godfather of Soul is everything that Clint Eastwood’s recent JERSEY BOYS was not–energetic, brilliantly acted, and with musical numbers that make you want to jump up in your seat and let loose. Even its denouement, admittedly most biopics’ weakest part, is fascinating, thanks to an electric, award-worthy performance by star, Chadwick Boseman (DRAFT DAY, 42).
The film begins with a noticeably older James Brown (Boseman) striding confidently like a jungle cat in a backstage corridor, prior to taking the concert stage. The timeline then jumps to 1968 with Boseman breaking the fourth wall (a Scorsesean effect again used far more effectively than in Eastwood’s JERSEY BOYS), brashly asking the audience if they’re ready. And just like the best showmen (much like Brown) who grasp how to hook their crowd, GET ON UP grabs you and doesn’t let go until long after its credits have rolled. The timeline then rapidly shifts back to 1939, with the film chronicling Brown’s turbulent childhood in South Carolina with his abusive father (Lennie James) and embittered mother (Viola Davis, exceptional as always in her limited screen time here). Soon, he is passed off to his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer, Oscar winner for THE HELP) in Georgia, where he learns about showmanship in a fateful foray into a local church. The pace moves briskly forward to Brown getting placed in jail for a petty crime and serendipitously meeting Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), a sweet natured singer-songwriter, whose family takes in the troubled young man following his parole. From there, the film skips forward and backward in time detailing Brown’s volatile nature, his stubborn demands for perfection from the talented musicians surrounding him (notably and famously, Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Pee Wee Ellis), and his rocky friendship with Byrd over the years .
What sets GET ON UP apart from other musician biopics is its standout performances. While Jamie Foxx and Joaquin Phoenix gave perfectly serviceable interpretations of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash in RAY and WALK THE LINE (respectively), we were always keenly aware that we were viewing actors playing a part. In this film, Boseman fully disappears into the role, and for fans and newcomers to the James Brown story, it distinctly feels like we’re watching footage of the musician himself. The costume design and make-up play a key supporting role, of course, but with any other actor, the part could have easily veered into caricature territory (especially with the pompadour and the outlandish outfits Brown was so fond of sporting). Boseman easily captures both the uncompromising genius and seething vitriol just beneath his poised surface. Supporting players, Davis, Dan Aykroyd and Spencer are, as expected, commanding in their brief stints, but the real standout is Nelsan Ellis. Pulling a complete 180 from his role of Lafayette on HBO’s True Blood, Ellis is the beating, bleeding heart of GET ON UP. His character’s steadfast and maddening loyalty to Brown is the emotional core of the film, and Ellis quietly sells it with restrained grace that endears him to even the most hardhearted.
Playwright, Jez Butterworth and his brother, John-Henry, wrote a fascinating script (with an elliptical timeline to keep the audience engaged), but it is James Brown’s music and director, Tate Taylor’s superb direction of the riveting, swinging musical numbers which will bewitch viewers most. Though it is the original music heard throughout the film, Taylor (proving that THE HELP was an abysmal blip on his resume) forced the cast to sing and play their instruments live in order to get a feel for the music, and the experiment clearly paid off. Watching the film, we feel instantly transported back to the sundry concert venues at which Brown and his band played, replete with screaming girls, sweat and the thrilling sensation that we’re gawking at musical history taking place.