Movie Review: Chadwick Boseman Elevates “Get On Up”



My hometown of Baltimore was a hotbed of soul music back in the day. As a result, I grew to enjoy groups like The Four Tops and The Temptations. For some reason, I never really got into James Brown. I think his style was a little too edgy for me. 

The newly released biopic “Get On Up” captures the roughness of “The Godfather of Soul.” Credit for this tense portrayal of Brown goes to Chadwick Boseman, who I had never seen before since I missed him play Jackie Robinson in “42”.

Boseman is superb. His characterization exaggerates Brown’s raspy speaking voice and irascible nature and adroitly performs his funky dance moves, including groin endangering splits. Brown created his own choreography, so Boseman had a challenging task in replicating his footwork and other motions.

He told Yahoo News that he wasn’t sure he was right for the role, including the physical part, especially having just come off of playing the more phlegmatic Jackie Robinson. However, after some coaching and viewing his own screen test, he decided to give the character a try.

“Get On Up” reveals the harsh nature of Brown’s upbringing and how it influenced his approach to life. The singer, born in 1933, was the son of a 16-year old mother and a barely adult father. The film shows the violence and immorality surrounding Brown in his youth. His mother eventually left the family and moved to New York. His father is portrayed as an abusive husband and parent. The movie shows Brown spent part of his childhood growing up in a brothel.

I felt sad for James Brown after walking out of this flick. It is said that it is lonely at the top and “Get on Up” emphasizes how true that was for him. His only true friend was singer Bobby Byrd, who helped Brown get into music. As Byrd’s role in their singing group diminishes and Brown’s shines, their relationship in the film becomes more like one between a boss and a subordinate.

Great men and geniuses like Brown seem to have a certain arrogance that drives others way. As the story in “Get On Up” develops, Brown grows more and more authoritarian and tyrannical in his personal and business life. The end result is that he alienates just about everyone around him.

Brown’s life as shown in the film is also a narrative on race relations in the 20th century. In one scene, a couple visiting New Orleans refuses to swim in the hotel pool where the young Brown’s entourage is cavorting, noting that they paid a lot of money and were not going to swim with “niggers”. In a much later scene, the successful Brown comments to Byrd that they have come a long way, pointing out that a white man had just cleaned his friend’s pool.

The singer’s manager, played by old favorite Dan Ackroyd, also contributes to the racial theme. While discussing social justice on a plane with Brown, he reflects on how he as a Jew has collaborated to make a black man rich.

The story itself is not the strength of “Get on Up”, partly because the constant jumping around to different points in Brown’s life and back creates confusion. What makes the movie, in addition to Boseman’s performance, is the music and costuming.

The voice of James Brown is actually used in much of the film to reenact singing performances. Boseman described his musical role to Yahoo News as “singing underneath” Brown’s voice” as opposed to lyp syncing.

The evolution of the singer’s dress and hair is all part of the film’s ambience. Boseman through the work of designer Sharen Davis is attired in blue formal wear, a gold jump suit and even a fur coat. He sports a conk and wavy long hair.

The soul music is what attracted me to “Get On Up”. Boseman’s portrait of James Brown’s role in its development makes me want to look more into the man’s music.

When a film not only entertains you but also moves you to action, what more can you ask of it?


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Filed under Baltimore, Film reviews

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