The number one reason to see Get On Up is to witness the performance of Chadwick Boseman. He’s fantastic—singing, dancing and acting.
The story of singer James Brown (Boseman) is cleverly told out of sequence by director Tate Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Episodes depict performances as well as Brown’s dealings with family, fellow musicians and strangers.
James Brown’s dysfunctional upbringing led him to unsavory behaviors as an adult. That rough childhood also gave him the will to be his own man, not dependent on others.
The musical performances in locales from Vietnam to Paris to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to the set of the movie Ski Party to a Cincinnati recording studio are uniformly excellent and fun to watch. If Boseman really did all those dance moves, he proved himself to be just as athletic here than as he was in last year’s 42 biopic where he starred as baseball great Jackie Robinson.
Brown and mom Susie (Viola Davis) had a troubled relationship. His abandonment issues resurface in a tearful reunion. Brown was abusive to his wife Dee Dee (Jill Scott, who makes a strong impression in her minimal screen time) but she hung in with him. Brown’s up and down relationship with musician Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) is resolved in the movie’s final half hour.
Unlike many black characters from all eras in modern movies, in Get On Up, James Brown has an authentic Southern black dialect. Hats off to the filmmaker for making that choice. Boseman nails the memorable rasp in JB’s voice.
Get On Up could use a bit of tightening up. But despite its just-a-bit-too-long run time, the film reveals much about a man who was a genuine pop icon. And whether you are/were a James Brown fan or not, Boseman’s performance will impress you.