More than any other genre, musical biopics seem plagued by formula and cliché. The tradition goes back almost to the dawn of cinema, and with it comes an instant road map that lets filmmakers set it all on auto-pilot. With the likes of Ray and Walk the Line scoring Oscar gold a few years ago – and with no shortage of influential musicians to choose from – the question isn’t why we’re seeing them; it’s why they haven’t been shoveled down our throats by the truckload. Get on Up, I’m pleased to report, manages to overcome most of the genre’s problems not by avoiding the clichés, but simply by powering through them.
The film’s primary asset is an is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex performance from Chadwick Boseman, playing the legendary James Brown. Having pulled off a similar (though less flashy) trick with Jackie Robinson, it’s hard to deny that we’re watching a major talent at work, and in a production that could have skated on mere mimicry, Boseman finds the heart and soul of the man at the center of it all. Director Tate Taylor adds a little wrinkle by letting Boseman break the fourth wall at key moments, but the actor still has to sell us on something more than a blank recreation. We care because we can feel Brown’s pain as well as his triumph, and Boseman makes us empathize with the man even when the screenplay starts to travel down overly familiar territory.
That’s a good thing because Get on Up becomes very familiar at times. Director Tate Taylor tries to mix things up by shifting back and forth between different time periods, but he can’t escape the predictable beats falling at the expected times. Brown grows up dirt poor in the Deep South, enduring abandonment from his destitute parents and casual flirtations with crime to become a soul music legend. Taylor finds new ways to stress the institutional racism of the period, from black children fighting for the amusement of a country club to the ominous sign of a hangman’s noose dangling from a tree. Even so, the story becomes thoroughly predictable, as Brown’s ascent signals changing times and success gives him the power to claim the respect denied to him by white America.
Get on Up never outdistances those expectations, and at times flirts dangerously close to a living waxwork. Its saving grace comes both with its subject in general and in the way it shows us what made him great. It delves surprisingly deeply into his commitment to the backbeat, the energy with which he expressed it and the way it gave rise to the funk movement that followed him. Most movies of this ilk are content to ride on the power of the songs themselves. This one wants us to look a little closer at why we love them, and can prove enlightening to audience members (like me) who aren’t well-versed in how he did what he did.
And the film never shies away from Brown’s darker side as well: the ego, the domestic violence or the way he could terrorize those around him with the same intensity that made him irresistible on stage. Throw in some strong support (including Dan Aykroyd, who performed with Brown in three movies, and Nelsan Ellis as Brown’s stalwart right hand) and the songs themselves – still some of the most awesome ever recorded – and you have a hand strong enough to brush aside the film’s dodgier bits. The Godfather of Soul deserves nothing less, and I’d hope that he would approve of a warts-and-all portrayal like this one. That’s all Get on Up needs to stand out from the pack, something its subject never had much problem with.
The Blu-ray sweetens the pot even further, both with the high quality of sound and images (so important with a musical biopic), and with the quality of the extra features. The best is a series of extended song performances, letting you enjoy them to the fullest rather than relying on the truncated versions from the film itself. Six special features (running 5-15 minutes apiece) cover Brown’s legacy, the process of getting the film to the screen and Boseman’s preparation for the role among other topics. A collection of cut scenes completes the set, along with the usual DVD and digital copies.