Get On Up is a strange film. The beginning of the film starts with a unflattering portrayal of its main character, there are numerous instances where the main character breaks the fourth wall, and the film is littered with random flashbacks and flash forwards. These strange quirks give the film a strange tone that only starts to dissipate towards the end of the film and it ultimately prevents Get on Up from being a great film. However, it’s still a fascinating look at one of music’s most charismatic performers that also manages to differentiate itself from other bio films based on musicians.
The movie depicts the life of the Godfather of Soul James Brown, from his poor childhood to his rise to fame and success in the 50s, 60s and 70s, with his later years touched on as well. If you’ve seen other biopics like Ray or Walk the Line, you’ll definitely see some of the same beat hits and events those movies had. Multiple marriages, a change in outlook from a major worldwide event, a humbling experience; these are all here. However, this film feels different from those because unlike those movies, which focused a lot on the protagonist’s personal life, Get On Up focuses mainly on James Brown’s professional life.
As such, the main costars in this movie are James Brown’s business partners. Brown’s partnership with Ben Bart (portrayed by Dan Aykroyd) is really interesting to watch. Ben is very much a suit, a businessman who knows what works and what doesn’t and yet, he allows the up and comer Brown to flourish and take risks. The chemistry between Bart and Brown (portrayed by Chadwick Boseman) helps you understand the respect these two men have for each other despite coming from very different lives.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about Brown’s other important business relationship, Bobby Byrd (portrayed by Nelsan Ellis). Byrd is Brown’s right hand man, the bandleader to his backup band, and ultimately his best friend. Despite Byrd being arguably the closest person to Brown, this particular portrayal is less successful. Although I understand the importance of Byrd’s presence, the movie doesn’t give him enough time to fully develop his personality and his chemistry with Brown. It feels like there were some scenes with Brown and Byrd that were cut.
The parts where the movie does touch on his personal life are mostly through the flashbacks of his childhood and a few scenes with his wives peppered in with the main story. It’s definitely not the focus of the movie as his first wife is barely even mentioned and his second wife disappears by the second half of the movie. There is also some time building up his relationship with his mother as well but its not much. This all makes the movie a less comprehensive look at James Brown and it’s a shame that more time wasn’t devoted to his personal life. However, the focus on Brown’s career makes Get On Up more concise and it’s ultimately to its benefit.
This allows the movie to show James Brown at his best. His work ethic, entrepreneurial ambitions, and dedication to constantly putting on a good show are engaging to watch, not to mention that watching Boseman do all of Brown’s mannerisms and dance moves to a tee is very entertaining. The drama behind some of his standout performances such as his free concert at the Boston Garden after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as some of the more behind the scenes affairs such as his arrest after a high speed chase are interesting to see portrayed.
One of the biggest issues with Get On Up is none of it is told in a precise order, instead opting for flashbacks and flash forwards at mostly random moments in the film. In the second and third acts of the film, these shifts in time periods are fairly sparse and it doesn’t affect the pace of the movie too much but at the beginning, these shifts happen quickly and sporadically, making the film jarring at first. There’s a scene about James Brown’s trip to Vietnam that is placed in the first act with no context or mention later, making it seem like the scene was placed there because it didn’t fit anywhere else. Even after the initial 20 minutes of so of just being confused, the flashbacks often happen at inopportune moments that give you metaphorical whiplash before you recover and figure out where you are now.
The other big issue with this film is the tone. Most of the movie is told with the scenes unfolding in front of you and you as the viewer spectating. However, at random points, Brown will start talking to you, the viewer, directly, explaining the scene or what he’s about to do. There’s one scene in particular that has the world around him suddenly continue on as if he isn’t there anymore, and it just comes across as silly. There are also some scenes where symbolism is ham-fisted into the movie to make sure you understand that what you’re seeing means something else. These are also peppered into the movie like the flashbacks at somewhat random times and it doesn’t work at all. That’s the ultimate problem with the film. It’s filled with instances where you’ll be scratching your head, wondering why what you just saw just happened.
Bio films all have the same appeal, in that you want to see how someone famous dealt with both the normal tribulations of life as well as the abnormal ones associated with fame. Get On Up is no exception and although the lack of focus on his personal life is disappointing and the movie has tone and structure problems, it still manages to be a entertaining film to watch. The movie helps make the the business side of the music industry intriguing and it’s all the more intriguing when it’s from the perspective of the hardest working man in show business. It’s not a great biopic but it’s still one I can recommend.