The purpose of the biopic is to pay homage to that person’s legacy. Such is the case in Get on Up, a biopic about the artistic and personal life of James Brown (played by Chadwick Boseman). James’ mother, Susie (Oscar nominated actress Viola Davis), leaves a young James in the care of his father, Joe (British powerhouse actor Lennie James). Joe is an abuser and he can’t afford to take care of a little boy. So, he leaves James with the local Madame, Aunt Honey (Oscar winning actress Octavia Spencer), where James is exposed to female sexuality at a young age and ends up with a mother-like figure in his life, as well as a wandering eye.
In screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script (with story help from Steven Baigelman), we see James first as a mischievous boy, then a talented young man, and then a by-the-book adult who will fine his band members $20 for things like cursing and halting rehearsals. This James is happy, though he has a bit of a violent streak and an appetite for pretty women. In other words, he was like all other famous musicians in that regard. But the main idea of the film is that James created his own genre of music and that genre is still being used and his music is still being sampled today. James Brown is just that good.
Director Tate Taylor (the same man who wrote the script and directed The Help) puts together a starry cast that includes Jill Scott (as DeeDee, one of James’ wives), Dan Aykroyd (as Ben Bart, James’ manager), Nelsan Ellis (as Bobby Byrd, James’ best friend and band member), Aunjanue Ellis (as Bobby’s wife Vicki), Craig Robinson (as Maceo Parker, one of James’ band members), Cougar Town’s Josh Hopkins, and Tika Sumpter (whose character Yvonne Fair makes a cameo in the film).
Yvonne toured with James’ band in the early 1960s and James fathered one of her children, Venisha Brown. Unfortunately, that bit of pertinent information is left out of the film and Taylor barely introduces Yvonne as anything more than just a back-up singer. What’s not altogether clear is why Taylor opted to cut Sumpter out of his film and edit the film in a nonlinear format. Past and present blend into each other so that if you’re not paying attention, you’ll be lost. And there are some missed opportunities for character development. The women in the film aren’t fully fleshed out.
It’s assumed that the audience members will already be familiar with the key players and storylines, and that is a mistake. The point of Get On Up is to bring nostalgia to the geriatric set and introduce the origins of some of our favorite music to the younger set. At some point, the two sides of the spectrum need to meet up to make this a more coherent film.
In the acting category, Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd gives a can’t-miss performance. It’s so easy to see him as just his character, Lafayette, on True Blood. But, in a serious role as a straight man, Ellis shines all the same. Likewise, Scott attempts to flex some acting muscles as a wife who loves her husband and hates his erratic mood swings – communicating those intense emotions with her face.
Newcomers Jamarion Scott and Jordan Scott, who both play little James (or Little Junior as Aunt Honey dubs him), are stars in their own right. Both boys have soulful brown eyes that tell a story all on their own. And, Boseman, no stranger to portraying historical figures (read: Jackie Robinson in 42), really channels James, up to and including his mannerisms and dance moves. Alas, Boseman is taller and thinner than the entertainer. Nevertheless, Boseman gives James his all and captures some of what made James such an eccentric: his knack for being a great artist and performer.
Throughout the film, the audience is practically beaten over the head that James was born to be a famous performer. Those of us who remember the prolific artist don’t need that much reassurance. We know he was great. That said, Get On Up is still a great film to showcase the talent that is James Brown, educate the younger generation on the legacy left by the Godfather of Soul, and what good music is supposed to sound like.