Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Get on Up is inconsistently entertaining but never less than spectacularly acted thanks to the tremendous lead performance from Chadwick Boseman. Tate Taylor’s film is a rocky exploration of the iconic singer James Brown’s career and of the social unrest surrounding such a complicated, tragic man who wanted to bring the funk into everyone’s lives. The film opens with Brown in his 60s, looking overwhelmed at all of his thoughts before going on stage. Then it goes to him in his 50s as he wields a gun in one of the places he owns, asking about a woman who went to the bathroom as if she ran the place. Following that, the film jumps to various moments in time, whether that be him in his 30s with his family being interviewed at a Reno airport, or him in his 20s with the Famous Flames trying to make it big. The story is much like Brown’s manic, aggressive personality, in that it’s excitingly all over the place.
The film chronologically looks at Brown’s upbringing in the 1930s through 1950s in a pre-Civil Rights America, with his family coming from extreme poverty and being defined by a negligent mother and abusive father. Brown eventually gets abandoned by both parents and left under the care of Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), a kind, brothel-operating woman that treats the young boy with respect and a stern hand. Eventually Brown gets arrested for attempting to steal a suit and is sentenced 5-13 years in jail, a horribly unfair charge that emphasizes the uncomfortably racist approach to lawmaking at the time. He’s discovered as a musical talent by Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the leader of a religiously based singing group that helps Brown earn his way out of jail. They form together and eventually call themselves “The Famous Flames,” with Brown leading the way as the dynamic, talented frontman.
Brown will make it big, that much is clear, but the rest of the band is left to fend for themselves. A troubled relationship grows between Brown and Byrd, with the latter feeling resentful and betrayed by Brown. The leading man grows aggressively powerful and stubborn, his arrogance far exceeding his appreciation for his opportunities. Boseman allows the character to fully flesh himself out, with the script showing his sense of humor, his abusive relationships, and his trouble with drug addiction all as matters of fact. Taylor uses a distinctly impactful technique that can often define a film’s success when used: breaking the fourth wall. Boseman’s Brown addresses the audience, usually explaining to them the backing behind his decisions. Yet there is a key moment when, after hitting his wife and yelling at her for wearing provocative clothing, he glances at the camera and acts ashamed of his actions. Should we sympathize with a man that we come to appreciate over the film, especially after such callous, repulsive actions?
That’s one of the striking questions that the film handles unevenly. One thing it handles perfectly? The music. Oh, the music. Chapters throughout the film are mostly named after his hit songs, with each one usually being shown in its entirety as a tremendous combination of music and dancing. That’s where Boseman’s performance comes together, since he appears to be a talented singer and dancer that perfectly fits Brown’s style. He almost makes us forget about his personal issues when he dominates that stage. Taylor’s film uses the music to coordinate with social issues, however sporadically effective they may be: Brown performing in Vietnam for black soldiers; the death of Martin Luther King Jr. coming a day before a concert in Boston; and Brown singing in a holiday sweater surrounded by, what he calls, a “hunky hoedown.” The film tackles race issues head on and never relents.
The supporting performances are well-intentioned, but some fall flat due to the narrative’s inability to close out certain stories. Viola Davis’s turn as Brown’s mother starts strong when she is seen as a trapped woman who finally escapes a tumultuous household, but she becomes defined by her negligence and becomes a woman viewed as opportunistic rather than loving. It’s an effective role when used to understand Brown’s loneliness and destruction of personal relationships, but not for her as a mother. Dan Aykroyd is particularly strong as a father figure who likes Brown and becomes his record producer. And Ellis is fantastic in an understated role, one that asks him to sell the feeling of betrayal with a stoic nature. Yet the film will always come back to Boseman, the dominating, luminous force behind the Godfather of Soul. He’s magnetic and dynamic, with every moment he’s on screen feeling authentic and like a true embodiment. Get on Up isn’t a fully formed feature, but it’s backed by a great lead performance that articulates music’s importance on the public and their culture.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)