Biopics of famous singers are nothing new. From The Buddy Holly Story to Walk the Line to Coal Miner’s Daughter to Lady Sings the Blues, Hollywood craves delving into the psyche of a tortured entertainer. It loves to scrutinize enigmatic musicians who live far from the reality of the Average Joe theatergoer. There is an allure to dissect and analyze. To analyze a musician, to find out who they really are, how they got to where they are-an attempt to demystify an allusive creature and answer the question, why are they different than ‘us’? Get On Up is no different. Unfortunately for us, all Get On Up does is present us with an aimless, chaotic story that leaves us analyzing what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish.
The film basically presents us with a series of snippets of James Brown’s life. From his very unstable childhood to his start in music and then to his revolutionary contributions to the art, the film plays much like a scrapbook set to music. It introduces those who had an important impact on Brown’s life including two wives, his loyal friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd). It ends portraying (probably rightly so) James Brown as an off balanced eccentric who seemed to lose touch with reality near the end of his life. Regrettably, it does so with little cohesiveness and throughout we’re presented with an array of different themes. The film seems to send the message that music is the great equalizer that transcends all boundaries when Brown demands to play Boston right after Martin Luther King’s assassination and then quells what was almost a riot, not to mention with his musical assent and early success in business as an African American man in a society with a dismal history of race relations. Then there is the theme of friendship and loyalty. Bobby Byrd was Brown’s most loyal friend, standing by him during tumultuous times. The film shows Byrd (the real Bobby Byrd served as a historical consultant) not only as the man who gave Brown his first chance in music, but who gave him a chance in life when the Byrd family took him in after a stint in jail. In true biopic fashion, it also tells the story of a musician’s success, failure, revitalization and introspection as Brown turns into an idiosyncratic entertainer who is burdened by his own success.
Screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have written a screenplay that either tries to answer too many questions or knows that it can’t answer any of those presented. Lost in flashbacks and flash-forwards is who the real James Brown was. Surely a complex character, maybe Brown too easily becomes a caricature of himself. Ultimately, the filmmakers bought into his image, letting him off the hook for being egocentric, arrogant and emotionally manipulative because he was a charismatic entertainer who made an indelible mark on music.
This movie has everything going for it. It has director Tate Taylor, best known for directing The Help; actresses Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis, both Oscar nominees for their roles in The Help with Spencer winning for Best Supporting Actress; Dan Aykroyd, who famously acted alongside James Brown in The Blues Brothers and Doctor Detroit; producers Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger; Sharen Davis, costume designer known for her impeccable designs in Ray, Dream Girls, and The Help. If all that weren’t enough, it has breakout star of 42, Chadwick Boseman, playing James Brown. Across the board the performances are what holds this movie. That and the music; James Brown is a legend for a reason and we are reminded of why throughout. All this shows that you can have all the pieces but still miss. In the end, great performances are lost in a confusing script with little direction resulting in a movie that aimlessly takes the audience along a 138-minute journey and then never answers who James Brown really was.