We’ve all seen plenty of music biopics, so we know how this sort of thing usually goes. There’s the rags-to-riches story, the success, fame and riches, inevitably followed by substance abuse and clashing egos driving wedges between the members of the band. Get On Up is, fortunately, just as aware of these cliches as we are, and works very hard to present them in a way we haven’t seen before – which is quite fitting for a film about the Hardest Working Man In Showbusiness.
Director Tate Taylor has gone for a time-hopping, non-linear account of the Godfather of Soul’s life, jumping back and forth between key events to show how one led to another, instead of simply starting at the beginning and carrying on until the end. From one perspective, it’s a brilliant idea, as it means the film can sidestep most of the usual music biopic conventions, or at least present them in a different way.
On the other hand, it does make things very hard to follow, and if you’re not already familiar with James Brown’s life story, you’re likely to get very confused while trying to figure out whether the episode you’re currently watching takes place before or after the one you were watching ten minutes before. The characterisation isn’t exactly consistent as a result either, and even if the structure ultimately brings more good than bad to the film, it’s awkward at times.
Everything is forgiven, however, by Chadwick Boseman’s legitimately extraordinary performance as James Brown himself. From the voice, to the mannerisms, to the electrifying stage persona, he has completely immersed himself in the character of Mr. Brown, and if it’s occasionally hard to follow the narrative, you can’t ever take your eyes off the man it focuses on. If acting doesn’t work out for Boseman – though there’s no reason at all why it shouldn’t – he could always take up a career in dance based on his efforts here. It’s a towering performance, likely to end up as one of the year’s best, and Get On Up deserves to be seen for it alone.
Inevitably, things are somewhat sanitised, since Brown wasn’t exactly an easy person to work with. His wife-beating isn’t left out, but it is rather glossed-over, and there are only the vaguest hints at his drug use during the 1980s. It’s likely that Taylor made this decision to secure a lower age rating and to ensure that Brown’s estate would let them use his music, and it’s worth the trade-off, as the sequences of Boseman performing on stage are among the best in the film. They don’t leave out Brown’s perfectionism and colossal ego, fortunately, so the film never comes close to the hagiography that it might have been.
Special mention must go to the hair and make-up team, who have really outdone themselves here. The many and various hairdos which Boseman sports throughout the film are always impressive and often gravity-defying; and considering that he doesn’t look a whole lot like James Brown, they’ve managed to make him look surprisingly like James Brown.