Get on Up

Posted by Joel Copling on July 16, 2014

According to Jez and John-Henry Butterworth's screenplay for "Get on Up," James Brown was a man of great historical importance but also of dramatic insignificance (dramatic, of the literary persuasion, rather than as a measure of extremes). The historical importance is the only level on which the sibling screenwriters are working: Here is the bereaved childhood of the proclaimed "Godfather of Soul," there is the stint in prison during which he discovers his passion, and over there is the fame-driven career that established him as the musical artist who set the standards later met by the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson (performances of impressive physicality matched to infectious R&B tunes that became instant hits). The dramatic insignificance is a byproduct of the indifference with which director Tate Taylor treats the material.

James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) grew up with parents who abused and abandoned him from an early age (his mother, played by Viola Davis, to the physical violence by his father, played by Lennie James, who goes off to the Army), was landed in a prostitution hovel of sorts (Aunt Honey, played by Octavia Spencer, runs the place, is stern, but believes in James' potential as a successful person), and gets a dime in prison for a minor charge (Here he meets Bobby Byrd, played by Nelsan Ellis, with whom James would begin a musical group subtitled the Famous Flames). He also marries multiple women and loses a child whom he must bury too early. Meanwhile, the checklist of "Hollywood-produced biopic" conventions is completed in its entirety, and the film is all the less involving because of it.

There's an enormous conflict between the screenplay and Chadwick Boseman, who plays Brown well enough but isn't allowed by said screenplay to do much more than an impression. He is able to match Brown's jerky physical performances, his vocal inflection, and some of the more serious moments of the wages of fame (He beats one of his wives, played by Jill Scott, who stays with him against all common sense, and Boseman sells the loutish tendencies). If the musical performances are underwhelming (The title track is fun, but "I Love You, Yes I Do" is particularly endless), marred by a tendency to turn up the music and to turn down the lyrics, this is mirrored by "Get on Up" itself, which is an awkwardly edited trudge toward a confused and lackluster conclusion.

Film Information

Chadwick Boseman (James Brown), Nelsan Ellis (Bobby Byrd), Dan Aykroyd (Ben Bart), Viola Davis (Susie Brown), Lennie James (Joe Brown), Fred Melamed (Syd Nathan), Craig Robinson (Maceo Parker), Jill Scott (DeeDee Brown), Octavia Spencer (Aunt Honey), Josh Hopkins (Ralph Bass), Brandon Smith (Little Richard), Tika Sumpter (Yvonne Fair), Aunjanue Ellis (Vicki Anderson), Tariq Trotter (Pee Wee Ellis), Aloe Blacc (Nafloyd Scott).

Directed by Tate Taylor and written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth.

Rated PG-13 (sexual content, drug use, language, violent situations).

138 minutes.

Released on August 1, 2014.