How do you make a musician biopic that doesn’t feel stale, that has few echoes of its predecessors in the genre and manages to seem fresh and new? That’s not a rhetorical question, I want to know. Because while Get On Up, Tate Taylor’s retelling of the life story of James Brown, isn’t the fresh and new take on the biopic that audiences deserve, it takes a handful of steps in the right direction.
One of the most pleasant and surprising elements that stops the film from being 138 minutes of hero worship is the nuance. For the first hour of its runtime, Get On Up threatens to be another case of “Gee, wasn’t _____ great?” that seems to be the template for 90% of biopics. Brown is unbelievably talented, he’s an expert and revolutionary when it comes to business decisions, all the girls want him. You know the drill. And, thankfully, so does the film. We see Brown as an abusive husband, we see him betray and let go of those closest to him. We’re genuinely left to wonder if the man was confident or just big-headed. And it really is a credit to Chadwick Boseman, as James Brown, that all of this works so well. Boseman is a truly talented performer, who, between Get On Up and 42, may be gaining a reputation for being a go-to when it comes to biopics of famous black men. (Hopefully Hollywood will find more for him to do.)
The film even dares to ask if Brown, in the position of being a black performer in a still prejudiced America, is any more than a “show” to whites. In a flashback, we see a young Brown being put into a fight against other black children by a group of rich white people. Is this act of amusement any different from his music career?
And it’s these really smart questions that make Get On Up’s weaker elements feel that much worse. The film skips around in time, but with what goal? Sure, it breaks up the typical monotonous biopic structure, but it goes from one moment to another, there’s hardly any connection. It occasionally feels as though the editor found a “shuffle” button. The tone can jump from goofy to dead serious in a matter of seconds, with the audience’s laughter often overtaking more dramatic moments. Scenes begin in the film’s first third, only to finally end nearly an hour and a half later. Intertitles often inform the audience of what time period the story has entered, but almost exclusively during moments where the audience should be trusted to figure things out for themselves. The film shows its lack of faith in the viewer through Brown’s occasional asides to the camera, often pointing out the obvious.
However, Get On Up has one major saving grace that gives the film an emotional center that makes the whole experience worthwhile, and that’s Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette from True Blood) as Bobby Byrd. There are times when the character threatens to overtake the film, being far easier audience surrogate than the often unpredictable Brown. But it’s the friendship between Brown and Byrd that truly elevates Get On Up. It’s not often we get a real male friendship on film. Sure, we get ironic “it’s like they’re a couple!” friendships, or the classic odd couple duo, but there’s a real, touching bond here that spans decades.
Get On Up does not reinvent the musical biopic. It has its fair share of problems, but there is a lot here to like. Yes, it will eventually fall to its unavoidable fate of becoming a Saturday afternoon cable standard, and while the film will lose barely anything under that treatment, it is worth checking out in theaters.