The thing with biopics is that if you don’t know the person whom the film is about particularly well, you can’t be sure that what you are watching is a legitimate portrayal of their life. This was the case watching Get On Up, and annoyingly, even after watching over two hours documenting his life, I still don’t really feel like I know him, not in the way I had hoped anyway.
If the presence of Octavia Spencer and Viola Davies in the films impressive cast wasn’t enough for you to make the connection, this film was directed by Tate Taylor, who is most famous for directing The Help. Unlike The Help however, the bizarrely experimental film making detracts massively from successfully creating a constant and well paced narrative. The fourth wall breaks, the addition of archive footage and the non-linear narrative, while normally a welcome break from traditional film making, felt like an out of place gimmick.
The films brilliance is in its middle section where James Browns life is documented from when he was a young boy living in poverty with his abusive father and absent mother to when he first performed in a club with his group “The Famous Flames”. During this time we see how his mother left him with his aggressive father in a shack in the woods and his father couldn’t take looking after him so he takes him to the town to live with Aunt Honey (Spencer). He gets thrown in prison for thirteen years as a teenage for stealing a suit, purely because he has no family to take care of him he has to stay in for longer than normal for such a petty crime. A singer, Bobby, from a gospel group meets James in the prison and sponsors his release so he can sing with him. This is when they go to a Little Richard show at a club and hop up on stage to sing a song while Little Richard is smoking a cigarette outside. His fame spiralled from there, Brown had a child, got divorced, remarried and would hit his wife for wearing revealing clothes. Upon the death of his son in 1973, Brown loses touch with Bobby, gets involved in drugs and gets arrested. Twenty years later, Bobby and James are reunited.
The frustrating thing is that despite there being a really interesting story somewhere entangled in the narrative of the film, its feels totally lost in the jarring chronology. It’s more like a series of events that happened that have no relevance to each other, we see him supporting black troops in Vietnam and playing a concert on the night Martin Luther King died, we see him yelling at a woman for using his bathroom, we see him hitting his wife, boarding planes, playing concerts, but its all so fragmented it feels impossible to connect with him or his life on any level. The only time we have a structured narrative is when his adolescence is being documented and that was the only time I felt like I felt any emotional connection to him.
Despite this, the film was carried by the incredible portrayal of James Brown by Chadwick Boseman. He looked like him and sounded like him so much that sometimes you would forget that it wasn’t him. His performance was faultless as he grooved and moved his way up the ranks he was able to make you laugh and instil fear in you within the same breath. The fact that James Brown was actually quite an unforgiving person wasn’t entirely overlooked, despite his darker years, in the 1980’s not being a huge focal point of them film, it was alluded to in scenes depicting him yelling at his band, hitting his wife and being fickle with his women. I can appreciate why these points were omitted, as the film was more of a celebration of his life and his music than pulling up his past misgivings. His music, his voice and his soul are the reasons why he has since become a household name and his songs are some of the most well known and consistently listened to tracks of the last four decades and the music is the essence of the film.
Perfect for a night in, the film is a feel good romp into the rise of one of the greatest soul singers to have ever lived. If you overlook the gimmicks and can piece together the narrative, its one hell of a story coupled with an incredible soundtrack which will have you jiggling in your seat.
Get your groove on when Get On Up premieres SATURDAY, JUNE 13 at 8:00pm.