Chadwick Boseman as James Brown
Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd
Dan Aykroyd as Ben Bart
Viola Davis as Susie Brown
Lennie James as Joe Brown
Fred Melamed as Syd Nathan
Craig Robinson as Maceo Parker
Jill Scott as DeeDee Brown
Octavia Spencer as Aunt Honey
Josh Hopkins as Ralph Bass
Brandon Smith as Little Richard
Tika Sumpter as Yvonne Fair
Aunjanue Ellis as Vicki Anderson
Tariq Trotter as Pee Wee Ellis
Aloe Blacc as Nafloyd Scott
Keith Robinson as Baby Roy
Nick Eversman as Mick Jagger
Directed by Tate Taylor
The product of a dysfunctional marriage, his mother (Viola Davis) leaving at an early age to walk the streets, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) would have spent his entire life in and out of jail if he hadn’t encountered Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) who convinces Brown to be the frontman of his group, the Famous Flames. As the group rises to fame, Brown is highlighted as the true star of the act as his performances become legendary and he becomes a solo act with an unstoppable back-up band.
It didn’t take too long following his death on Christmas Day 2006 for someone to realize what a rich and interesting life James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, must have led before going off the rails and ending up in jail following a 1988 police chase.
Tate Taylor’s biopic opens with the incident that led up to this police chase before flashing back to earlier in his career and then to even earlier in his life as he grew up in the South with an abusive father and negligent mother (Viola Davis), who leaves James and his father to become a low-rent street-walker. James himself is dumped into the care of a brothel madam, played by Octavia Spencer, so it’s little surprise that he soon turns to petty crime and is thrown in jail merely for stealing a suit. That’s where he meets musician Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who hears James sing at a gospel concert for the inmates, and the rest is history.
James Brown seems like one of those musical acts who you automatically feel you might know everything about just from all the stories that have circulated over the years, but he’s also one of those personalities where it’s hard to separate the man from the myth. That’s evidently clear from this biopic that doesn’t try hard to sway from the tried-and-true format of these types of things–the film’s wonky structure borrows heavily from some of the better attempts like “Ray” and “Walk the Line” by jumping around in time–but it’s one that benefits greatly from the larger-than-life personality Brown has created for himself both on-stage and off.
What really drives the movie are the musical performances with Chadwick Boseman (“42”) perfectly recreating Brown’s moves while lipsyncing to his songs, though “Get on Up” is far more than just karaoke porn with Boseman skillfully portraying Brown from his late teens to his early 60s. As one would hope, it’s a movie driven by the music, and it makes it evidently clear what a genius Brown was in terms of creating his own inimitable sound.
Oddly, it’s Taylor’s previous Oscar-nominated actresses Davis and Spencer who aren’t nearly as impressive, maybe because we’ve seen so much better from both of them, most notably in Taylor’s previous movie “The Help.” On the other hand, Nelsan Ellis, almost unrecognizable from his role as Lafayette on “True Blood,” makes for a fantastic counterpart to Boseman’s own performance, boosting their scenes together much like David Paymer did in Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night.” So far this year, Boseman and Ellis are the closest we’ve gotten to truly Oscar-worthy performances.
Once he becomes a star, there isn’t a lot of conflict for Brown to overcome other than those he creates for himself by allowing his ego to run rampant as he fines and then fires his back-up musicians. As much as Brown would become hugely influential on those that followed him, he clearly made a lot of enemies along the way although his extra-musical activities, getting actively involved in civil rights and keeping the community calm after the assassination of Martin Luther King, goes a long way to prove he wasn’t just a tyrannical egomaniac.
The Bottom Line:
James Brown fans should thrill to the amount of ground this skillful biopic is able to cover, but more than anything, it’s Chadwick Boseman’s almost seamless transformation into the Godfather of Soul that really sells it. “Get on Up” is a thoroughly entertaining film.