Mr. Brown’s Bromance – ★★★
Get on Up tackles the life of the legendary James Brown. Unlike some musical biopics which go for a set period in time, the film attempts to tell the full story from childhood right up until the singer’s latter years.
Chadwick Boseman takes on the unenviable task of playing the “godfather of soul” and does brilliantly. Brown wasn’t the easiest man to understand or communicate with (especially when he was out of it), and at first it takes a little bit of time to tune into Boseman/Brown’s way of speaking and acting. Boseman is 37 years old but the combination of hair, make-up and his own acting skill transforms him into a magnetic screen presence – don’t be surprised to see him in the awards conversation next year. Unfortunately as with Ray, the producers used the James Brown originals in the final edit. The live performances are still as electric and engaging as you would want from a James Brown biopic, regardless of who’s singing the songs.
Director Tate Taylor is best known for making The Help and the success of it shows that he knows how to make a “race-aware” film. The film tends to shy away from showing too much of the real-world unrest that plagued America in the 1950s and 60s, focusing only on how it impacted on Brown. There is a superb recreation of a concert held in Boston the night after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated which gives some sense of the turmoil that was going on, and perhaps the film may have been more focused if it had honed in on the 1960s. Instead we get the standard biopic fare of timeline-jumping, with one experience supposed to provide context for another which then informs the next act and so on. It works for the most part, but you wonder what was wrong with telling a story like this and just going from beginning to end.
The supporting cast is very impressive as Taylor reunites with his The Help stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for bit parts, and credit also to Dan Aykroyd who plays Brown’s manager. Most merit is due to Nelsan Ellis who plays Brown’s sideman for many years, Bobby Byrd. Ellis actually played Martin Luther King Jr in The Butler last year so is well-capable of doing serious period dramas like this, but he provides a strong foil to Brown’s eccentric, lonely sociopath. Brown had three wives but his family life isn’t dealt with much here, other than showing the issues with his own parents and the death of his son Teddy. In place of showing much of his romantic troubles or the many domestic abuse stories that plagued him, the film instead settles on the Brown/Byrd relationship as a sort of centring force.
Mick Jagger is the producer here (the film includes a fun Rolling Stones moment during a TV performance) and perhaps his own adulation and respect for Brown means the film is forced to really gloss over the real conflict, power struggles, drug abuse and women woes that we all came to associate with Brown – as much as his incredible live performances and influence on music which are shown in all their glory.
Released across Ireland on November 21st 2014