Film review: James Brown biopic gets it right

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Get On Up fills the big screen with the larger than life antics of soul legend James Brown portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. Photo credit: Universal Pictures Get On Up fills the big screen with the larger than life antics of soul legend James Brown portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. Photo credit: Universal Pictures

Get On Up is the best possible film of an inherently mediocre genre: the biopic. Most biopics render themselves obsolete by failing to admit that when a person is famous, we almost always know the most interesting thing about them because that thing is the reason they’re famous in the first place. Whether the subject is an actor, politician, artist, etc., there’s not that much for audiences to learn from biopics, and so they have a tendency to lean on great lead performances in an attempt to smooth over the awkwardness of stagy, melodramatic reenactments with all the insight of a book report.

The James Brown biopic Get On Up, meanwhile, admits that you probably already know everything there is to know about “The Godfather of Soul,” so it has a different set of goals in mind: context. Motivation. What it was like to be around this man. Reminding you why this guy was a big fucking deal in the first place, even — no, especially — if all you can think of is Rocky IV, “Living in America,” and being “high on God.” Brown was a forceful personality and a true genius with an insane work ethic and DIY philosophy, who truly believed in creating his own destiny and stepping up to every challenge. Just because he was consciously ostentatious didn’t mean he wasn’t genuine.

The film opens by addressing head-on the tainted image of His Bad Self’s later years. A tired-looking, elderly Brown (Chadwick Boseman) visits his stale corporate office located in a strip mall in the late 1980s, following the series of events that led to his infamous drug-fueled police chase and humiliating arrest. Brown then breaks the fourth wall, and the appropriately out-of-order narrative of his life begins.

Told out of order to better portray the many sides of Brown’s personality while avoiding a linear, chapter-by-chapter story, Get On Up dedicates almost as much attention to the experience of being around James Brown as it does to Brown himself. While Chadwick Boseman’s phenomenal performance as the lead is clearly the star of the show, the supporting cast is given more to do than just soak in his glory and marvel at how right Brown is all the time, like the supporting casts in Ray or The Buddy Holly Story. Noted Brown affiliates Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) share one of the film’s best moments, a quiet conversation about choosing to not take the lead role in your own story and suffering indignity to remain close to greatness.

Another biopic convention that is pleasantly absent is the forced, magical inevitability or pseudo-divine guidance of Brown’s ascent. We see Brown making mistakes that are the result of his upbringing: Southern, poor, abandoned by his parents, facing the possibility of a life in and out of prison for petty crimes. We see his early influences in Southern churches and gospel, but none of them are presented as the single reason for his drive. He was an active participant in his own success through a combination of natural talent, hard work, and uncompromising drive, but he was never a passive conduit for some mystical force that made him destined for fame. At the same time, musical perfection is accurately shown as incredibly hard and emotionally taxing work, and at no point do any of Brown’s signature songs just come together in a moment of collective inspiration.

Most biopics suffer from not knowing whether to humanize or deify their subjects. Get On Up’s greatest strength is that it does neither. It doesn’t explain away Brown’s flaws, it simply asks you to embrace them as part of the whole. Though its runtime is a tad long and it could have done more to distinguish itself from other musical biopics, Get On Up is the best film of its kind, and Boseman’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.

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Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6
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Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
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  • Bruno Hob

    So fly that by me again, how does this film avoid the trite conventions because yeah, we all know Brown grew up poor, was troubled, talented AND worked real hard,staggered toward the light, fell into the dark…. begins with a flash back- yikes!. And before we condemn “trite” lets take a very conventional biopic: indeed it helped make the “stagey, melodramatic” conventions– Dieterle’s “Life of Zola” (begins with a flashback)- yet a great film.

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