paid the cost to be the boss, and Get On Up is testament to that truth.
The Tate Taylor (The Help) directed film opened Friday, starring Chadwick Boseman (42) as the titular character, featuring Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) Viola Davis (The Help) and Octavia Spencer (The Help). This film celebrates how Brown overcame much adversity to become a soul legend. Written with unique precision by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and performed with perfect comedic timing by the brilliant Boseman, this film is endearing in so many ways. The laughs alone are enough to make this movie a rare treat in the genre of biopics, but the well researched historical moments (with the living Bobby Byrd acting as historical consult) gives the film authenticity. And adding to it all, there is the surge of the music that would make even the most conservative movie goer exercise great restraint to keep from dancing in the aisles!
Get On Up runs against the formulaic grain of biopics.From the onset, the film has an autobiographical air, as Bosemans Brown intermittently breaks the fourth wall. Told in flashbacks and vignettes that operate like chapters in a book, the story tells Browns life in a nonlinear fashion. There too is an element of magical realism during the scenes when we see younger James Brown, known as Little Junior, forging his own destiny as a street urchin in a small country town.
Without a doubt, the star of this show is Chadwick Boseman. Impressive enough was his mastery of the choreography needed to portray a man with such fancy footwork as James Brown. But beyond the dancing, Boseman truly embodies Brown in a way that cannot be overstated. More than just the swaying walk, or the perfect dialect with the right staccato inflections, Boseman exudes Browns self-assuredness. In Boseman, we see just how much James Brown believed in himself and his own ability to thrive. Bosemans sheer talent just leaves you excited to see him in even more dynamic roles that step beyond the sphere of biopics. He is the type of actor who is easily a high-quality leading man.
Equal to Bosemans convincing performance was Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd. A departure from what his fans are used to seeing him as the fabulous Lafayette, Ellis plays a very loyal and faithful Byrd, who consciously stands in the wings of Browns success. One of the most poignant moments in the film came following the 1971 Concert in Olympia where you see Byrd pining to step just a little out of the shadow of Brown, and Browns furious response. Ellis brings nuance to the relationship between Byrd and Brown, and the two great actors feed off each other to make their fraternal bond seem genuine.
Other performances to note were certainly the small, yet significant roles of Viola Davis as James mother Susie Brown, and Octavia Spencer as the bordello madame, Aunt Honey. As both had previously worked with Taylor, they were cast well in their roles as the matriarchal figures in Browns life. Serving as foils to each other, these women left an indelible mark on the making of Brown, as the two actresses left one on the audiences. Additionally, Dan Aykroyd played something of a self-effacing but very effective Ben Bart, James Browns manager. And to be sure, Jamarion and Jordan Scott as young James Brown were truly breathtaking. The blankness in their eyes but the hope in their smiles made them convincing poor street boys on a path to greatness.
And in other cameos of sorts, the film did right to include other musicians who were instrumental forces in James Brown life. Craig Robinsons disgruntled Maceo Parker was one such character used to polarize and criticize Browns erratic and often selfish ways. Other musicians were a steamy Tika Sumpter as Yvonne Fair, a hazy-eyed Justin Hall as Bootsy Collins, and Brandon Smith in the role of a hilariously campy (if not somewhat problematic) Little Richard.
Presented in a comedic format, it was serious at times to help elucidate Browns life. Particularly, elements of race and racism were inescapable, given the era. It seems though that story went through every effort to not have this film centered on race. As result, some instances of racial insensitivity were brought up that almost felt out of place. Theres one particular usage of the n-word that felt wholly unwarranted. But as was the case of the seriousness of this film, it was laughed off later by the same offending character trying to do the mashed potato. Other such thorny moments were also quickly brought up (the lacing of a marijuana cigarette, the explosive, sudden displays of domestic violence) and then pushed back down.
Its not easy to find the narrative arc of this story. Indeed, Brown endured many hardships, including prison, drugs, and troubled relationships. He was abandoned and abused. He had a monstrous ego which pushed plenty of collaborators aside. And yet, in the midst of that, none of those troubles defined Brown. And ,in that same light, none of those problems defined the pace of the movie either. Insted, Get On Up is a testament to human resilience. This film is about an individual refusing to let people standing his way, including himself. The montage of images towards the end of the film almost served as a triumph to self. Young Brown uttering I paid the cost to be the boss feels like the truest thing ever said.
But for all the self-sufficiency the film espouses, it resolves with Brown singing Try Me to a Bobby Byrd sitting in the audience, showing that even the most independent of souls is reliant upon another. Its in that moment where we see the heart of the film, the crescendo of Boseman and Ellis performances and an important lesson: we can only achieve our purpose with the strength of those who are there to hold us up.
This is James Brown’s World : Get On Up Review by Yvorn Aswad