With a sensational lead performance, energetic music and a clever narrative structure, Get on Up succeeds.
If only barely.
Let’s start with Chadwick Boseman (James Brown). Every now and again, an actor fits a role so well that it is hard to imagine anyone else ever playing the character ever again: Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump; Denzel Washington as Malcolm X; Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly; Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins; and so on. Such occurrences aren’t necessarily the best performances, strictly speaking, but they are a perfect fusion of actor and character.
Boseman as Brown is one such fusion. Here the actor’s on-screen athleticism, beauty, charisma, vulnerability, intimidating presence and intellect all meld together to craft a fascinating character, one whom we don’t always like, but in whom we are nonetheless interested. Without Boseman, Get on Up would be an average biopic, one as forgettable as it is entertaining, but with him it resonates; it becomes something more than it otherwise would have been.
Though Boseman is not alone in developing his character. Director Tate Taylor and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterwoth help him, mostly by using a non-linear narrative structure, one that serves to illustrate the constancy of James Brown’s virtues and foibles. In other words, because of Taylor and the Butterworths‘ structure, we feel, not just understand, but actually feel, the essence of James Brown.
The structure, however, is not without narrative consequence. As effectively as it develops the central character, it is equally ineffective in advancing secondary players. The women in Brown’s life, except perhaps his mother (played here by Viola Davis), are rendered traitless, indeed even nameless.
So are most of the men.
The lone exception is Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, excellent), but even Byrd falls short of being well-developed. He is a sketch of a compelling character, but no more.
Moreover, the non-linear structure makes it difficult to track sequence of events, which means we don’t leave Get on Up with a clear sense of the time-line of James Brown’s life.
That last flaw is minor, however, because plot is not Get on Up’s primary goal; character is.
And the principal character is certainly fascinating.