Get On Up Review

Get On Up

Ever since Walk the Line supercharged music biopics back in 2005, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood told the story of The Godfather of Soul.

Also known as Soul Brother Number One.

Aka Mister Dynamite.

Aka The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

And most commonly, James Brown.

Having been a huge Brown fan ever since I was a teenager, this was funk music to my ears. ‘I Got You’ was my, and doubtless most of my generation’s, mainstream introduction to the singer’s back catalogue, which spans from pop-soul numbers to heavy-funk hits to gritty film soundtracks.

I was lucky enough to catch one of Brown’s live performances back in the Summer of 2006, just a handful of months before he died. And though he knocked over his microphone at one point, The Godfather of Soul’s stage presence was undeniable even at seventy-three.

And you can’t help but feel that, if he were still alive, Brown’s ego wouldn’t have allowed anyone but himself to play the leading role.

Director Tate Taylor, the man behind The Help, was tasked with bringing Brown’s story as well as his many alter ego’s to life in Get On Up.

Fortunately proceedings are capably anchored by strong central performances from Chadwick Boseman as Brown and Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, on whose relationship the film primarily focusses.

The story is mounted upon these foundations, recounting Brown’s rise to stardom, from the backwoods of Georgia at the age of six, to an emotional concert in 1993.

Support is also on hand from the likes of Craig Robinson as Maceo Parker, and Dan Aykroyd as Universal Attractions manager Ben Bart, an early advocate of the star.

Taylor chooses, presumably to add variety to a well-worn trajectory, to handle the story in a non-linear fashion, jumping between 1988, 1968 and 1939 all within the first fifteen minutes or so.

The pace is therefore frenetic and sometime chaotic, but then again, so were Brown’s stage performances.

The main downside of this approach is that it makes it harder to gauge Brown’s gradual transition from ambitious gospel singer to overbearing superstar.

The film also seems to gloss over much of the seventies and eighties, such are the limitations of two-hour biopics.

Rather than try to squeeze in too much of Brown’s stage career, his most notable gigs are wisely cherry-picked, such as the T.A.M.I. show in 1964, at which the star mercilessly upstaged a young group called The Rolling Stones (incidentally Mick Jagger executive produced this film).

The 1968 Boston Gardens gig also rightly features; this was the show at which Brown attempted to placate uneasy crowds in the wake of the Martin Luther King assassination.

As for Brown’s darker side, the film doesn’t flinch from, nor dwell upon, his drug habit and incidents of domestic abuse.

But at its centre, this is the story of a man who changed the musical landscape of a nation forever.

And it’s a story well told.

Conor Brennan

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November 2014
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