Director: Tate Taylor
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Lennie James, Tika Sumpter, Jill Scott, Dan Aykroyd
Release Date: August 1st, 2014
In 42, unhealthy Chadwick Boseman exhibited a quiet resilience as iconic baseball player Jackie Robinson. That admirable film chronicled that player’s unlikely rise in a solid and straightforward way. Get on Up, side effects directed by Tate Taylor (The Help), seek is a sort of antithesis to that. It is loud, nonlinear and vibrantly alive and its fast pace serves to show how exciting, complicated and frantic James Brown’s life was.
The feature– which stars Boseman as the legendary singer– opens with Brown walking down a long dimly-lit and nearly-empty hallway. The momentary scene hints at how lonely Brown’s life ultimately was. Yes, there were times when Brown was pushed away by family members (especially his mother) who wanted little to do with him but there were also times when Brown chose to be alone— abandoning some of his closest allies and friends along the way.
Now in history, Brown stands alone as well as one of music’s greatest innovators and musicians. His personal moments of solitude have translated into a legacy of significance.
Spanning decades, Get On Up seeks to present a full scope of Brown’s life and achievements. Taylor jumps from one time period to another noting some of Brown’s monikers along the way. From “Mr Please Please Please” (1955) to “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” (1965) to “The Godfather of Soul” (1993), the feature stops along different periods in Brown’s life and attempts to show how he became the legend he was when he passed away in 2006.
As a child, he’s depicted as an innocent witness to his parents’ destructive relationship. Viola Davis appears as his frightened mother Susie while Lennie James portrays his abusive father Joe. Of course, the parent’s relationship is not to last and James— after suffering many hardships– is left living with his kind-hearted Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer).
Both Spencer and Davis (and Allison Janney who appears briefly here) co-starred in Taylor’s previous project The Help, another winning movie that also portrayed racial disharmony and the turbulence of the 1960’s. In Get On Up, those scenes are few in number but provocatively depict Brown’s awkward position as he was caught between the hard left (the Black Panthers, for instance) and the White House, which was eager to make him an ally. A scene depicting Brown’s concert in Boston immediately following the Martin Luther King assassination in 1968 shows Brown facing that position head on as the already-excited crowd gets out of hand and the overzealous police officers get involved.
The film also shows the pain Brown inflicted on others and one depicting him hitting his wife is both realistic and agonizing. (In that scene, Taylor notably depicts the violence offscreen as if to state that this is a side of Brown that the singer wouldn’t want us to see but one that we must to understand the man that he was.)
Dan Akroyd puts in a solid supporting performance here as Ben Bart, an executive whose voice of reason and stability helps keep Brown’s energy under control but the performance that stands head and shoulders above the rest is Boseman, who captures the highs and lows of Brown’s personality. Brown had a manic enthusiasm and charisma and Boseman ably brings that to life and does a notable job of dancing like the great musician himself.
Get on Up isn’t as straightforward as 42 and it works so well because of that. The complex and often-times troubled James Brown was a man who changed the course of music (“Every record you got got a piece of me in them,” he says in a scene showing his later years).
Get on Up captures that and– to its great credit–much more.
Review by: John Hanlon