Get on Up review

Filmmakers who attempt to sum up a life in less than three hours have a hard road to walk, and efforts in making biopics seem so often to result in dull failures rather than vibrant successes.

With Get on Up, however, director Tate Taylor and screenwriters by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, have wandered somewhat from the usual path, and found their way to a film filled with energy and imagination, if maybe not so much in the way of insight.

In attempting to illuminate the highly complex figure that is James Brown in just one movie, the filmmakers have adopted an unusual and, I think, risky structure. Rather than taking the more traditional, linear route, Get On Up instead tells its story through a number of snapshots from Brown’s life. The audience are jumped backwards and forwards, the on-screen time period switching to best deliver whatever aspect of Brown’s life is next the most relevant or dramatically or thematically pertinent.

It’s an interesting approach, and maybe one that was informed by Brown’s music, taking off in a new direction suddenly, with a new key or time signature, then settling into a groove before once again flying off in another direction. This structural attitude, coupled with a heightened approach to stylisation in the camera work, sound design and editing, certainly gives the film a lot of energy. Even when the film stumbles over some pretty trite or even silly areas – the Vietnam section in the film, for instance, is really rather daftly written – I did still get caught up, with thanks to the fresh and fun way in which the material has been presented.

Chadwick Boseman is really quite extraordinary in Get on Up, being called upon not just to transform into James Brown, but to transform into alternative versions of Brown from very different periods in his life. Boseman has clearly put in a lot of research into his performance and he scores high for technique. While we tend to see only brief scenes from Brown’s life, we get to infer a great deal about his changing feelings and attitudes from physical nuances. Differences in how Boseman holds his shoulders, angles his chin or the gait of his walk keep us in tune with the character’s development.

Unfortunately Taylor and the Butterworths never cut so far under the skin of Brown and those looking for a greater understanding of this iconic figure will perhaps come away feeling a little shortchanged. Most satisfyingly mined is Brown’s relationship with his longtime bandmate and friend, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). This relationship offers the film its narrative spine, but we never fully understand quite why Brown treats Byrd the way he does; scenes from Brown’s early life with his mother (Viola Davis) provide a background for his emotional drive but little else.

Get on Up is an incredibly enjoyable and exhilarating film and it’s this vitality that keeps it afloat while a lack of complexity and some weaker writing provide the undertow. This is a fun film and well worth seeing but it’s not a biopic that tells us so much about its extraordinarily interesting subject.

Get on Up will be released in UK cinemas on the 21st of November.