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Get On Up

Theatrical Review

Universal Pictures; 138 minutes

Director: Tate Taylor

Written by on July 29, 2014 

Biopics, especially musical biopics, are both an easy sell and a tough nut to crack. Like the most resilient of sub-genres, the formula is so tried and true that to stray from it is to avoid what is obvious. You have a storied, genius artist whose beginnings are (and have been constructed to be) the stuff Americana is built on: a poor child from a fractured family with God-given greatness. Through tragedy comes legend, and from fame comes tragedy all over again. And yet, at the end there is much to celebrate.

And while Get On Up does not hide from the tropes of all of the relatively genial musical biopics that have come before, director Tate Taylor does his damnedest to find the flavor (or the funk) in the tale of musician James Brown, played winningly by Chadwick Boseman. Bouncing around the James Brown timeline with abandon, Boseman constantly breaking the fourth wall to keep the audience engaged, Taylor wants to have fun with Get On Up the way Brown did on stage.


To be sure, there is no shortage of the man doing his thing on stage throughout the 2-hour and 18-minute running time. All of the hits are accounted for, as well as the splits and the shimmies and the shakes. In every way Taylor is a better filmmaker here than three years ago when he helmed The Help. The actor-turned-director is much more visually ambitious this time around, utilizing his cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt most especially in the obligatory flashback scenes to Brown’s childhood. Taylor seems to know how stale these moments can be to the overall bio-narrative, doing his best to skim through the far past, capturing a pinch of beautiful Southern landscape and a schmidge of tortured family history. Viola Davis and Lennie James do solid work as James’ mostly-absent mother and father. Octavia Spencer makes an appearance as Aunt Honey, the woman who finally raises him to be a man, amongst some considerable squalor.

Boseman is the highlight, of course, and Taylor is smart to keep his leading man front-and-center in every, single scene. This is the James Brown story, after all, and Boseman plays him at nearly every age, the film opening in the middle of the 1988 incident that resulted in a car chase and a late-in-life prison stint for the Godfather of Soul. The scene is mostly played for laughs, recognizing the eccentricities that came to partly define Mr. Brown throughout his life.

It’s these little moments of comedy (not to mention a couple of moments that daringly mend Brown’s sexual appetite to his documented penchant for spousal abuse) that momentarily elevate the material on-screen to something more raw, more risky. Unfortunately, there’s not enough to distinguish Get On Up as it’s own kind of James Brown story. There are still dark times and multiple wives (none of whom serve as real characters), broken friendships that provide large metaphors for life choices and quaint reconciliations that are meant to accent that patented final swan song in movies like this. Perhaps that is the ironic compromise one makes when attempting to tell the grand story of an artistic trail-blazer to the world: following a reliable formula.

 Get On Up hits theaters on Friday, August 1st.


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