Opening with an incident late in James Brown’s life that is startlingly strange, Tate Taylor broaches his biopic of the Godfather of Soul with an individual outlook. Written by award-winning playwright Jez Butterworth and his brother John-Henry Get On Up is not your typical, straight-forward rags to riches story.
While it opens in the 1980s the film doesn’t then, as you might expect, jump back to Brown’s childhood and show you how he became the legend he was. Instead it takes you to 1968 and his performance for the troops in Vietnam, jumps to 1939 with an introduction to his childhood and the violent relationship of his parents, and then back to 1964 in his time with The Famous Flames.
This departure from a linear narrative is one of a number of creative devices that are clearly there to make this drama stand out from the biopic crowd but can actually reduce the impact of Brown’s story, and some come across as a little forced – for example the use of time-lapse photography which only occurs occasionally and for no obvious reason other than a display of artistic flair.
With all the jumping back and forth in James Brown’s timeline it’s not only difficult to keep track of the comings and goings within his life but also to get any real feel for his musical progression. Apart from one moment in which two performances of the same song from different eras are neatly juxtaposed it is hard to really get to grips with Brown’s musical legacy. In fact, it is a task to remain connected with all the people and places at all. While this is a great way of maintaining the focus on Brown himself, and his friendship with Bobby Byrd, it can leave you more than a little baffled.
That being said, some of the elements are successfully striking. In particular the breaking of the fourth wall which gives the film not only a great feeling of fun and the audience being let in on secrets but also manages to deliver the occasional gut punch that might not have been achieved without such direct contact.
Taylor presents a solid enough drama with strong performances from a truly entrenched Chadwick Boseman (especially in the stage performances during which Stephen Goldblatt’s camera gets brilliantly and uncomfortably close to his face) and an unrecognisable Nelsan Ellis (True Blood’s Lafayette) while he reunites with three of his The Help alumni with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer playing influential family members and Allison Janney in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.
The film tries a little too hard to break the mould and suffers for it but is a solid drama with two great lead performances.