chadwick-boseman-james-brown

A relatively small genre, biopics are essentially a hit or miss. Some are simply not interesting enough to support a film, while others are so larger than life that it’s nearly impossible to accurately depict them on screen. Get On Up, the latest entry into the genre manages to steer clear of all of those problems.

Where films like La Bamba and Ray have soared, Get On Up rises even higher, as Chadwick Boseman (who played Jackie Robinson in 42) provides a dead on rendition of Brown, soul and all. Undergoing rigorous training to master the steps that would inspire the likes of Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger, Boseman is already drawing early praise as a potential Oscar contender.

In a time where Black musicians were pioneering new genres like Jazz, RnB, Funk and (especially) Rock’n’Roll; for the everyday Black American, life was still as it had been for years by then, as they valiantly fought for equal footing within their society. These are the conditions that Joseph James Brown, Jr. (his original name before a mistake switched the first and middle name) was born into, bursting into the world in 1933 on a sharecroppers farm in South Carolina.

Brash and unapologetically Black, with his ferocious vocals and provocative croons, Brown easily led the pack. Pulling forward as a lone wolf, so self-sufficient he’s lost the ability to value anyone around him. A creative genius, the man behind the curtain was complicated; kind, neglectful, sometimes abusive, generous and personable.

Intent on breaking the mold created by previous biopics, this film hops around throughout Brown’s life, together weaving a tapestry of the often troubled man behind the music.

The film opens in 1988, with a then middle aged Brown high on PCP and wildly brandishing a shotgun, as he lectures a group of insurance agents holding a meeting in a building he owns, one of who has inadvertently offended him by relieving herself in his private bathroom. By the end of the film we discover that it was this incident, coupled with the high speed police chase, that landed him back in jail in ’88.

Taking a non-linear direction, the film eagerly plays hop scotch between memorable moments throughout Brown’s life; documenting his ascension to fame, and examines his failed marriages and infamous power struggles and domination of his band. Fans of shows like, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, will especially find humor in the films use of “breaking the fourth-wall” which allows Brown to directly face the audience at times as he voices his own thoughts.

We are given access to back stories of Brown’s early days in show business, his dealings with the former gospel group who wound up, like many others in his life, abandoning him. Haunted by the abandonment from his mother and being left with an abusive father, who then turns the youth over to “Aunt Honey” (Octavia Spencer) who runs a brothel yet provides his first taste of real warmth and structure.

We also witness the repeated mistreatment of those around him, including his long suffering best friend, band mate and one time savior, Bobby Byrd (portrayed by Nelsan Ellis of True Blood fame,) whose family takes James in after he is paroled at age 20. It would be Byrd who would arguably bear the brunt of James wrath, standing beside his friend through numerous bands, as many members left due to monetary disputes and mistreatment.

The film does not shy away from issues of race, accurately portraying an era of blatant racism; including the memory of a young Brown blindfolded and forced to enter a ring where other Black boys were forced to fight one another
solely for the amusement of White spectators, as a Black band looked on in shame. Nor does it shy away from the painful memories of Brown himself, staying within the parameters of the PG-13 rating but including brief references to drug use in his later life and documented spousal abuse. Jill Scott steals scenes with her portrayal of Brown’s second wife Dee Dee Jenkins, whom Brown is shown assaulting.

It’s hard to capture the complexities of a man who befriended President Johnson and the Black Panthers alike. Yet somehow this film succeeds, with Boseman especially impressive in his portrayal of James from 17 to 63. Get On Up delivers on it’s promise, standing as an excellent cinematic tribute to the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

“Get On Up” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Mild sexual content, some drug use, some strong language and violent situations.