Blallywood Film Review: Get On Up
James Brown is perhaps one of the most underrated artists of all time. His soul-stirring style and endless energy birthed an era of music that changed the industry for generations come. He is the most sampled artist of all time and has inspired some of the biggest acts in music history. One of those acts is “The Rolling Stones” and leading man Mick Jagger produces an honorable tribute to the Godfather of Soul with Get On Up.
The film is marked by some notable performances, namely Chadwick Boseman as Brown. Simply stated, he nails it. His energy is endless, mannerisms spot on, speaking voice a dead-ringer. He proves a formidable dancer in the iconic performances Brown turned out in his career. He successfully ages from portraying Brown at age 16 up until he’s well into his late 60’s. The portrayal is full of heart and one Brown would be proud of. Jill Scott stands tall as his long-suffering leading lady Deirdre “Dee-Dee” Brown. Director Tate Taylor casts The Help alumnae Viola Davis as Brown’s mother and Octavia Spencer as Aunt Honey, Brown’s brothel-owning matriarch who takes him in after his mother and father abandon him. Though parts are small, both performances are meaningful and memorable. Fresh-faced Brandon Smith makes a scene-stealing splash as Little Richard in a few scenes with Boseman. Though slightly caricatured, there are glimmers of heart and edge through the flamboyance.
Taylor employed an interesting convention in the film where Boseman (as Brown) addresses the audience directly during a scene. It’s a bit distracting at times as I think it removes us from the dimension of time and space in which the scene takes place. But, since the film propels backward and forward through time (not always seamlessly) anyway, it’s tolerable. This inattention to fluidity of chronology is interesting- the progression of the film jolts us backward and forward in time, much like chapters of a book instead of a biopic.
Much like Ray, the film features breathtaking pastoral flashbacks that lay some heavy groundwork in helping us understand the man, the tragic pathology of violence in his family, and his roots in the backwoods of the south.
Thematically, the film is a surprising mediation on friendship. Brown’s decades long friendship with Bobby Byrd, impeccably portrayed by Nelsan Ellis, is brilliant in its dysfunction. Byrd is consistently mistreated by Brown throughout the film but sticks by his side, perhaps for the sake of friendship, but also for a deeper more interesting reason. Byrd eventually has enough and abandons Brown after more than 30 years together and their reunion at the end of the film is a redemptive revelation.
Those of us on the younger end of history know the big hits like “I Feel Good” and “Papa’s got a Brand New Bag” and most of us know the archetypal symbols like the pressed hair, jumpsuits, and metallic capes. Get On Up expounds on what we know to deliver a deep portrait of a man born with a gift that painfully transcends his surroundings and a star quality that seemingly reduced the artist to an island of ostracizing solidarity. It is quite beautiful. Go see it. B.