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Review: Get On Up

To tackle the role of James Brown would surely be daunting. Brown was such an electric human being, that the task of playing him could only be taken on by a select few. A couple years ago, the recently released biopic Get On Up (untitled at the time), was in the hands of Spike Lee, with Eddie Murphy attached to play the “I Feel Good” singer. Lee was fired and replaced by Tate Taylor (The Help), who chose 42’s Chadwick Boseman to play Brown. While Eddie Murphy probably would’ve made a great James Brown, Boseman does a phenomenal job, and will have viewers believing that they are watching the Godfather of Soul himself. While Boseman’s performance in spot-on, Taylor’s directing is a little messy, which may have viewers double-guessing producer Brian Grazer’s choice to fire Spike Lee.

The film opens in 1988, as a woman is sitting on the toilet doing her business. Cue an angry James Brown waving a shotgun at a group of employees at one of his businesses, demanding to know who used his bathroom. What follows is a high-speed car chase, right before the film makes one of its many time jumps. The film goes as early as 1939, where a young Brown is abandoned by his mother and father (Viola Davis and Lennie James) and is sent to stay with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), who runs a brothel. We later jump to a teenage Brown, who meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) in prison. After being released from prison, the two form the band The Famous Flames, which eventually shoots Brown into international stardom, with Byrd always in his shadow.

As far as music biopics go, Get On Up is pretty standard. While the film may not be in the leagues of What’s Love Got to Do with It and Ray, it’s still a pretty entertaining movie. The main thing that separates from the aforementioned films is its time jumps. While the time jumping initially seems like an interesting tool, it later becomes a little confusing and doesn’t add much to the film.

Get On Up seems to show us the best of Brown, rarely acknowledging the many negative things associated with him such as his drug use, spousal abuse, and numerous legal troubles. While the film does show Brown briefly striking his wife DeeDee (Jill Scott), it skips over the fact that Brown beat DeeDee, and his other wives, many times.

Boseman is absolutely excellent as Brown. He perfectly captures both Browns dance moves and his mannerisms. Don’t be confused about that voice though. Unlike Joaquin Phoenix, who sang his own vocals as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Boseman moves his lips to actual James Brown recordings.

Another highlight in the film is Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd. Ellis, who is known for his role as the flamboyant Lafayette in HBO’s True Blood, makes a wonderful big-screen debut. Ellis has small roles in Taylor’s last film The Help, as well as a short appearance as Martin Luther King Jr. in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, but Get on Up is the first film in which he is allowed to show off his true talent.

While Get On Up may not be the most memorable of biopic, it’s still a fun, toe-tapping good time. Fans of James Brown will be glad to hear all their favourite hits still intact and exactly the way they’re supposed to be heard. Even if you’re not a James Brown fan you’ll still enjoy Boseman’s awesome performance.

[star v=35]

Matt Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman is a Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films and actresses over the age of 50; including but not limited to: Isabelle Huppert, Meryl Streep, and Jacki Weaver.