Film Review – Get On Up (2014)


James Brown lived a fantastical rags to riches crazy, crazy life. From his early days living in brothels and on the streets, to prison, to being the soul king, to threatening a group of people with a shot gun cause someone did a number two in his loo. There’s no question that this is a story that was just waiting for someone brave enough to take the helm. These people were director Tate Taylor (The Help) and producer Mick Jagger amongst others and Get On Up is their attempt at capturing the essence of this outstanding story on film.

Told through a number of different timelines the film covers all the trials of Brown’s (Chadwick Boseman; Draft Day, 42) life, from his time on the streets and living with his volatile father, through meeting life long collaborator Bobby Bird (Nelsan Ellis, The Help, True Blood) in prison, their musical career and beyond.

You get to see a lot of behind-the-music type scenes, which I’m sure those more up on Brown’s story will see the significance. One particularly stand out scene is where a young Brown is talking to a hairnetted Little Richard whilst he’s flipping burgers talking that he’s going to be a star one day. And of course Mick had to make sure that the Rolling Stones feature in the film, with Brown accusing them of stealing R&B’s soul!

What really stood out for me is the energy captured in the live performances, the scenes are absolutely electric. The music in these performances is digitally remastered versions of actual James Brown performances, it all sounds awesome that you should and will be dancing in your seat. Boseman really puts in the moves, he apparently lost 15 pounds throughout the film as a result of all the dancing, so that you never actually feel like you’re not watching James Brown perform.

However as with many a biopic, what lets the film down is there’s actually too much to cram into one movie and in some ways it assumes some knowledge to fill in the blacks. In particular, the film skirts over Brown’s volatile wife beating, which is well documented, most recently in daughter Yamma Brown’s autobiography. The film shows a couple of scenes of domestic violence inflicted on wife Dee Dee, but shows these without any real reference or follow up.

I appreciate it’s difficult for Tate Taylor to show everything, but really it was as if he said “ok, lets tick these ‘domestic violence’ boxes with a couple of scenes”, which to me belittled the representation of the whole situation. One can only assume that Taylor wanted to focus on the more positive and ridiculous than the reality of domestic abuse, but his handling of the subject in the film did a dis-service to women who have been through similar circumstances and more importantly to Dee Dee.

Reading about the film it feels like some people think what they showed was brave (including Jill Scott who played wife Dee Dee) and others feel like it was one of the many things missed out, so in some ways what I got from the film is my interpretation. However I hope that people watching the film appreciate that despite his undeniable talent James Brown was horrible to women and not a personality to be celebrated.

Regardless of this omission, James Brown as a character does not come off lightly and the film attempts to show the many sides of his volatile, self absorbed and manipulatively charming character. Chadwick Boseman’s representation and transformation into Brown is phenomenal and you never question his interpretation, he is James Brown. He is also able to pull off both a young and old Brown with class and there’s none of the noticeably “old” make up (see Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain) to put you off. Some of it was done with very advanced CGI using a 3D scan of a bust of James Brown. Bobby Bird is a more sympathetic character and a grounding friend for Brown and their brotherly friendship is captured quite beautifully throughout. There are also fine supporting roles from blues brother Dan Aykroyd and Craig Robinson (This Is The End).

The film is a rollercoaster portrayal of an undeniable character and musical legend whilst attempting to also show Brown’s flaws and dark side. The film stands up well as a musical biopic and can be listed alongside Walk The Line in watchability as well as Oscar-worthiness. However regardless of the fantastical events included in the film, viewers should questions what was left out in the telling of the story.


Alice Hubley

Genre:Biography, Drama, Music  Distributor: Universal Release Date: 21st November 2014  Rating: 12A Director:Tate Taylor Cast:Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd


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