Chadwick Boseman is a man of biopics. Last year, he played Jackie Robinson in the underwhelming 42, alongside Harrison Ford. This year, he was thankfully given a meatier role, starring as the legendary musician James Brown in the uniquely put-together Get on Up, named after one of Brown’s most popular songs. The role is no easy feat since James Brown’s music has overcome the tests of time and generations and is still well-loved and listened today. But Brown’s iconic status in pop culture history doesn’t seem to have fazed Boseman in the least as he gives us a fantastic and accurate portrayal of the legend.
We’re always shown little pieces of Brown’s life, with each chapter of his life named for one of his songs. We start off with Brown in 1988, go back 30 years, move up 10, and so on. This non-linear choice of storytelling works in its favor because each moment moves when Brown is fueled with certain emotions that trigger the movement in time. The film is also bright, full of energy, and yet still touches on moments of intensity–like a young Brown being forced to fight in a boxing ring with one hand tied behind his back for entertainment–without letting them swallow the film.
In fact, the use of time almost seems effortless, with director Tate Taylor using several beautiful outdoor scenes and fast forwarding them through the setting and rising of the sun and season to indicate time had passed. Clever. The music is also another strength of the film. Where Clint Eastwood doesn’t use the music in Jersey Boys to add more layers to the film, Taylor does. There’s an entire segment in the film in which Boseman as Brown performs, intersected with live footage of the real-life Brown’s performance and it’s so full of energy and well done that you’ll feel as though you are a part of the concert.
Obviously the focus isn’t entirely on Brown’s personal life and only delves into them so briefly, but we see enough of his life to maybe understand his movement from boy to man. Most of the focus, however, is about James Brown the performer and show business man. Regardless, Boseman excels at both the emotional, personal moments and as Brown the entertainer. His dance moves, mannerisms of Brown while onstage, voice, and emotional beats are just so well done and full of the life that Brown once had. An Oscar-worthy performance.
Nelsan Ellis shouldn’t be overshadowed by Boseman, however. Ellis’s portrayal of Boseman’s best friend, biggest supporter, and would-be competitor is to be admired. There’s so much underlying sadness to his performance that’s subtle and screams at you all at once. He forever lived in Brown’s shadow, but Ellis allows him to be seen in the light. The rest of the supporting cast, including Craig Robinson, Viola Davis, Dan Aykroyd, and Octavia Spencer are well-played, even though their screen time is limited and characters not as drawn-out.
Get on Up glosses over a lot of important facts about Brown’s life, but it somehow makes up for these oversights by providing audiences with a unique take on one of pop culture’s most revered figures. Its focus is more about his career than his personal life, and that’s immediately clear after ten minutes into the film. It never gets too dark, regardless of some of the very awful experiences Brown goes through. It seems Taylor was intent on making the film be on par with Brown’s music, upbeat and something people can enjoy.