Music biopics generally mean awards. If you look at Ray, Walk the Line and What’s Love Got to Do with It?, they all walked away with a major award. Following the success of The Help, director Tate Taylor takes on the film biopic of the ‘Godfather of Soul’, which could make its leading man a Best Actor winner.
Get On Up follows the life of James Brown (42’s Chadwick Boseman), starting from this troubled childhood to his successful solo career, personal troubles and his long-standing friendship with singer/songwriter Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis).
Like most biopics, Get On Up is a character-dominated piece. The film is all about James Brown and from his interactions breaking the fourth wall, he constantly reminds the audience of this fact. His insights do little to bring the complexities of Brown into the limelight and as the film progresses, we don’t really learn a lot about him as person, rather than a performer. As a result, it feels that Taylor, as well as Edge of Tomorrow writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, have ambitiously tried to fit in too much in a relatively constrained running time of 139min.
The complicated narrative doesn’t help. Bouncing from the present, past to near-present, it is a strange and unnecessary way to tell a biopic. Key moments from not only Brown’s life but also popular culture are lost in the timeline. In fact, large gaps in history, such as the repercussions of Martin Luther King’s assassination, aren’t explored in enough detail and those that are included are glossed over by music.
However, this show ultimately belongs to Boseman. He captures the groove, soul and even Brown’s incompressible speech and his performance is electric. Nelsan Ellis is also great as Bobby Byrd, the man credited for ‘discovering’ Brown. Best known as the flamboyant Lafayette in True Blood and a short-but-sweet role in The Help, he has a chance to pull off a more dramatic role and the camaraderie between him and Boseman is endearing.
Overall, Get On Up has its flaws, but it is entertaining, soulful and Boseman puts in his finest performance to date.
Get On Up is released in UK cinemas on Friday 21st November.
Director: Tate Taylor
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd
Runtime: 139 min