“James Brown needs to think about his entire life before he plays.”
That’s not how Get On Up opens, but it’s close enough to the first line from 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a woefully under-appreciated comedy that should really be required viewing as a “What Not To Do” guide for anyone attempting a biopic of a musician. Alas, this film about Godfather of Soul James Brown walks into every cliché lampooned in the Apatow spoof one by one, although not necessarily in the right order.
It starts with that Cox-style pre-gig remembrance, with lines of dialogue we’ll hear in the next two hours echoing around as Brown (Chadwick Boseman) walks down a long corridor to the stage. Then for mystifying reasons, we cut to 1989, to an utterly random and anecdotal scene where Brown shows up at a building he owns and threatens some people with a shotgun, to determine which one of them dropped a number two in his loo.
It’s an immediate warning sign, because this is barely given any context later on, nor does it have any bearing on the plot whatsoever. Evidently, it’s just an anecdote so good, they had to find some way to include it. Poop detective work aside, the film is actually about Brown’s life from age 6 to 62.
That’s a broad swath to cover, but unfocused as it is, the through-line is the star’s ego through his evolution as an entertainer, first as a member of the R&B group the Famous Flames with his friend Bobby Byrd, (Nelsan Ellis) and later as the self-styled “Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness”.
Unlike the recent Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, which keeps three separate timelines on the go with seamless pacing, the steam-of-consciousness staging of Brown’s personal history makes for a disjointed viewing experience. Writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth just came off of writing the time-bending Edge Of Tomorrow and yet of the two, this one feels more temporally scrambled and incoherent.
It’s possible that director Tate Taylor found this approach in the editing room, because it’s hard to imagine it on paper. Even aside from the wacky chronology, there’s a tendency to repeat itself over the course of its flashbacks. We see two scenes in which young James (played by twins Jamarion and Jordan Scott) gets a formative taste of performing for a crowd.
The first comes in at a gospel mass, where the preacher’s energetic performance is almost reminiscent of the real Brown’s cameo in The Blues Brothers, especially with Dan Aykroyd present elsewhere as manager Ben Bart. The second comes at a battle royal staged for white folk, whereby black children are blindfolded and forced to box with one arm tied behind their back. One of those is far more influential and plausible than the other, and the latter feels like little other than an undergraduate attempt to look for historical precedent in Brown’s showboating and egotistical manner.
But any of Brown’s transgressions, like the aforementioned incident with the shotgun or his dalliances in domestic violence, are addressed only if they can make for an energetic tangent. The effect is so trifling that they might as well not have been addressed at all- there’s an unflinchingly celebratory tone either way. Still, in all of its jumping around the timeline, it does better than most films to age its cast up with subtlety over time, rather than employing J. Edgar-style rubber masks.
Boseman plays him well from age 16 up to his 60s and his showy, star-making performance is truly what rescues the film from inertia. He’ll be a household name by the time he débuts as Black Panther for Marvel, but his whirlwind fourth-wall-breaking turn as Brown is what sustains the film’s manic aspirations.
The soundtrack is made up of the original vocal recordings of each song, but despite some slightly distracting lip-syncing, Boseman nails the physicality required, from the swagger down to his barnstorming stage performances. The best of these comes at a memorable Boston show after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, where Brown literally talks down a black audience from rioting in the face of over-zealous security- this is the moment where the charisma of both the character and the actor come through most strongly.
Almost as strong (albeit in a different way) is Ellis, who is fascinating as the second fiddle to the superstar. One of the few revealing scenes where our lead character isn’t on-screen finds Byrd explaining to saxophonist Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) why he continues to endure Brown’s creative tyranny and bullying behaviour, and it really shows the crucial balance provided by Ellis’ more low-key performance.
In the years since Walk Hard made it harder to excuse biopics that over-dramatise their subject in this way, films like Me & Orson Welles and The Runaways have excelled in taking more of a sideways angle on artistic legends, rather than trying to encompass their whole lives in one story. It’s tantalising to wonder how things might have been, if this were a film that played out from Byrd’s perspective and found more time for that friendship and working relationship.
As it stands, Get On Up is an over-long, scattershot dramatisation of James Brown’s life, which we wish we could recommend on the strength of two marvellous performances by Chadwick Boseman and Nelsan Ellis. But the goodwill borne by five-star performances is really brought low by the muddled execution. For all of its more manic flourishes, it’s not even as well-told as Walk Hard.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.