Timelines in biography films can be difficult to depict, especially when dealing with a 54-year timeline that the ambitious Tate Taylor tackles while depicting the life story of James Brown, the Godfather of soul.
Wow, though, Taylor and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth make this unnecessarily difficult to follow. A big problem with the timeline here is that it sporadically offers one event, goes to other events, and revisits the first event in 30 minutes’ time. That’s just one frustrating and bizarre way that the film displays its narrative. There’s also very little indication of the actual point in time between 1939 and 1993, other than cues for music buffs, like when Brown’s song he’s performing was released; or important events in time, most notably the Vietnam War or when Brown performs at The Garden in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The meandering order of events finds no groove and it just feels lazily formed. Within the 149-minute run-time, it feels like it jumps around in time more than Doctor Who and Mr. Peabody combined.
This year’s Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood’s music biopic depicting the story of the Four Seasons, also suffers from awful timeline issues – as the make-up department did not do a good job of successfully aging the actors – which is a problem Get on Up doesn’t possess. The film is, of course, about James Brown. It depicts his rise to fame from extreme poverty, and his road to be among music’s most influential artists.
Themes of extreme prejudice in 1950s Georgia are displayed by James getting five to 13 years in prison simply for stealing a man’s suit. This does put him on a course where he meets future band-mate Bobby Byrd (a grounded and memorable Nelsan Ellis). Byrd is a reasonable man, which seems to be a reason bandmates can tolerate Brown for so long, because even though he has a vibrant energy on-stage, his personality is quite arrogant. He could be soured by fame, which seems to be the case with a lot of big stars. Brown shows a preference to his black audience, and I think that’s well-highlighted by how well James seems to react to a “Let’s not make music for the white devil” spiel by a young singer named Little Richard (Brandon Smith). One jarring scene depicts his preference to black people, where he performs in front of a white crowd, and then breaks the fourth wall and is then performing in front of a black crowd. The imagined sequence just doesn’t have a strong transition.
There are scenes that do conduct their job marvelously. A scene in James’s childhood depicts him finding a hanged black man in the woods. James steals the dead man’s shoes. This told me his poverty is so extreme, in order to get a new pair of shoes he had to steal them from a dead man. This was the film’s most powerful scene.
The acting is fine all around. Octavia Spencer performs well in her brief screen time, and Viola Davis is great as James’ mother, Susie Brown. Up-and-coming star Chadwick Boseman gives it his all as the iconic James Brown with an energetic performance. He embodies Brown perfectly, down to the persona and vocal patterns. At least we can all take pleasure that both Tate Taylor and Boseman capture the essence of Brown in their film. However, Boseman gets so involved in the role that he might not realize he mumbles constantly. It’s difficult to hear him clearly and often enough, only every few words per sentence are caught. That’s the way Brown talks, but it makes for a truly frustrating experience if what is being said will make ask “What did he say?” every so often. Due to that irritating aspect, wait for the DVD and just watch this with subtitles.