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Get on Up - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Get on Up
Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

Biopics are difficult to do particularly well. Tate Taylor's biopic of James Brown, Get on Up, doesn't quite reach the level of greatness, but it is thoroughly entertaining. One might even say it's better than Taylor's last movie (The Help). At least this time there's no beloved novel to be beholden to, at the expense of cinematic quality.

This movie potentially could have suffered from the same issue as The Butler, attempting to cram far too much of an entire lifetime into one two-hour movie. Miraculously, Taylor avoids this with a lot of clever editing that jumps back and forth through time. Instead of being confusing, flashbacks to James Brown's childhood offer context. Get on Up is anything but linear, but the story still feels like it's being told organically.

That is, after the opening scene, anyway. We start off in 1988, and Brown is crashing a meeting at a business he owns, his nose out of joint when he finds out an attendee has used his bathroom. He literally walks into the room with a shotgun, naturally putting people in a panic. Much of this is played for laughs, and instead it's just uncomfortable. It's the one place in the movie where it's hard to tell whether or not that's deliberate, but hang on -- it gets better.

Other scenes are clearly meant to make us uncomfortable, such as when James as a child is part of a boxing tournament with nine other black kids, all for the entertainment of rich white people. The kids are also blindfolded and have one arm tied behind their backs. And just a little ways from the ring, is a brass band composed of several grown black men. The whole scene is just plain creepy. And then, in a near-knockout stupor, young James Brown has a vision of the music he wants to make, in which, let's just say, that brass band gets up to "bring the funk." And this about-face in the sequence, with subtle elements of fantasy, is one of the movie's many charms.

We are clearly meant to see James Brown as a deeply flawed man and a musical genius. Taylor lays on the genius aspect thick, and throws in token moments of Mr. Brown (as he eventually begins insisting everyone call him) being an asshole. He has volatile relationships. In one scene, just after knocking his wife to the floor with a punch or a slap (not sure which, as the actual moment of contact occurs behind a wall from the camera), James Brown glances up at the camera -- guiltily. It's hard to decide how to feel about that moment: is this supposed to give us permission to revere the musician as millions do, since at least he feels bad about it?

There are many moments when Brown, played phenomenally by Chadwick Boseman (who recently also played Jackie Robinson in 42), looks at, or even speaks to the camera. You wouldn't expect this to work, but most of the time it actually does. With efficiently written dialogue, it saves time in an other wise pretty long movie, clocking in at 138 minutes. And even this is clearly not long enough to offer a portrait of a figure this compelling with any real depth, which is Get on Up's greatest weakness.

It's a weakness that's easy to ignore, though. You want insightful analysis, read a book. This is a movie and we're here to get no more than a sense of James Brown as a man and a musician, and be entertained along the way. With the help of a strong supporting cast -- True Blood's Nelsan Ellis as his best friend Bobby Byrd; Dan Aykroyd as his agent; Viola Davis as his mother; Octavia Spencer as his aunt -- this movie delivers.

And, of course, so does the music. Boseman lip-syncs to the real James Brown's songs, but he has the stage presence, and dance moves, and even the speaking voice to match. He makes it easy to believe him as James Brown, and the many musical sequences are very well staged. Some haven't been as happy with the film's narrative structure, but it worked for me. But thanks to a great cast headed by an incredible performer, Get on Up may be far from perfect, but it's also impossible to resist.

Chadwick Boseman and Nelsan Ellis offer an entertaining if incomplete portrait of James Brown in GET ON UP.

Overall: B+
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