With Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer. Written by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth. Directed by Tate Taylor. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations. 138 minutes.
Without even knowing which musician’s life story is being dramatized, you already know how the film is going to go: He starts out from a poor or modest background, but already has the raw talent and ambition that will define his career. He’ll struggle, but eventually be recognized and get a big break. Having enjoyed great success, he’ll face serious problems–drugs, womanizing–that threaten to not only destroy the important relationships in his life, but also derail his career. He’ll get through it and return greater than ever. The film will end with a moment of triumph.
I’ve just described the plot of not only this summer’s “Jersey Boys,” but also “Walk the Line,” “Ray,” “The Buddy Holly Story,” and many others. It’s also the plot for GET ON UP, a dramatization of the life of James Brown. The details may vary, but it’s the same well-trodden path. It’s why most of these films are notable for two things: the music being celebrated and the lead performances. “Get On Up” proves to be no different.
The filmmakers have chosen to jump around in time, so one moment Brown is a little boy and the next he’s on a plane going to entertain the troops in Vietnam, but it can’t distract us from how familiar the story feels, even if you know nothing at all about Brown. What makes the film worth seeing–even if you don’t know his music–are the two lead performances.
Chadwick Boseman is an actor to watch, having played Jackie Robinson in “42” and a key football player in “Draft Day.” He really gets to show his range here, from the young Brown on the make to the older performer who isn’t used to being questioned even by employees demanding back pay. If his turn as Robinson was about holding his emotions in so as not to give satisfaction to those attacking him, he lets it all loose as Brown, on stage and off.
Nelsan Ellis will be instantly recognizable by many as the outrageous Lafayette on the HBO series “True Blood,” but even his fans will be surprised by his very different turn here as Bobby Byrd, Brown’s longtime friend and long-suffering colleague. He also has to work a range of emotions from the eager gospel singer giving Brown–in jail for stealing a suit–a leg up, to the seasoned performer who realizes that Brown is rightfully the star of the act, a role he’ll never attain. Brown could sometimes be abusive to those closest to him, including Byrd, but Byrd had the advantage of always being able to tell Brown the truth. The most interesting moments of the film focuses on their friendship.
Other relationships get short shrift, and there are so many loose ends that the nearly two-and-a-half hour film threatens to unravel. Viola Davis, always a welcome presence, has just a few scenes as Brown’s mother. Octavia Spencer plays a madam who takes young Brown in for a while. Both actresses were standouts in the director Tate Taylor’s previous “The Help,” but seem to be here largely for publicity value. The supporting player who is the biggest plus is Dan Aykroyd as Ben Bart, the promoter who was instrumental in Brown’s career.
Overall,the film is like a collection of the greatest hits of Brown’s life, from “You’re So Good” to his Boston concert the night after the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination, where he was given credit for bringing people together at a time of crisis. That’s makes “Get On Up” a film that Brown’s legion of fans will want to see. As for everyone else, it’s a workmanlike movie that’s worth seeing to catch two young actors on their way up.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.