Get On Up is a film biography about James Brown, named after one of his more famous songs. Starring Chadwick Boseman as the Godfather of Soul himself and with Dan Akroyd playing the manager Brown had for most of the pivotal early years (Ben Bart), the movie takes an interesting non-linear approach to storytelling. That is to say, it jumps around James’ life during key turning points, often showing the source of his modern current conflicts and travails.
We start with Brown in 1993 about to go on stage, amidst the chanting of his audience and cut immediately to August, Georgia in 1988 where he is unhappy that his restroom was used in one of his offices located in a mini-mall. He demands to know who fouled his restroom to a group office staff at a meeting and ultimately discharges the shotgun he is carrying, stunning the group and causing a young woman to admit the transgression.
The movie takes you, in no particular order, from his very young age in the late 1930’s where he was taken from his mother by his father, made to live with aunt (I think?), all the way to near present day (before his death) where he reunites with Bobby Byrd, his good friend that took him into his own home and brought him into his band, The Flames. Brown becomes the defacto lead singer, and through his leadership and talents is able to have the band sign with King Records and then with Federal Records. He continues to perform as the lead singer of The Flames until the record label decides to label the music as ‘James Brown and His Famous Flames’, causing all of his bandmates, save for Bobby, to quit. Later Brown performs at the Apollo, marries twice, and is pivotal to keeping the peace by performing shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Junior at Madison Square Gardens. Bobby eventually leaves Brown’s band to try to form his own, and the movie wraps up with the moments prior to Brown heading to the strip mall with his shotgun to find out who was using his restroom.
Boseman, to me, appeared to be a little taller than James Brown, but with makeup and his spot-on impersonation of Browns’ dancing and singing style, the illusion was complete. He was effective at conveying his excitement about how famous he was becoming and his unhappiness about being part of the white culture – though his manager was white.
What appealed to me is that the movie was fun. The music is fantastic, as you’d expect from Brown’s catalogue. The acting is somewhat hammy but not annoyingly. Seeing a young Little Richard, with his flamboyant style and singing was really entertaining – especially when he becomes upset at Brown for sneaking up on stage during a break and singing a few tunes to an adoring audience. There’s also the famous scene where the Famous Flames opened for the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger noted what a great reaction Brown was getting from his dancing style. So Jagger, intent on not being lower energy than the opening band, actually attempted to copy James Brown’s dance moves, which lead Jagger to his own unique moves. The picture doesn’t always paint James Brown as an appealing character; he beat his second wife for wearing a Santa outfit that was too risqué. But he does come across as likable and you are sympathetic to his difficult climb to soul legend.
Sometimes the timeline jumps are jarring, yes. Sometimes the acting is over the top, yes. But overall it works well. And like I mentioned, the music and dancing provides quite a boost.
On a scale of one “hyeahhhh!” to five “ima say, say SAY!”, the Monkey gives this flick a solid four “I feel good!”‘s and says check it out.