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Get On Up – Review

Get on Up Review
Get on Up Review
Get on Up Review


Release Date: 1 August 2014 [USA]
Director: Tate Taylor
Writer: Jez Butterworth - John-Henry Butterworth [Screenplay & Story] - Steven Baigelman [Story]
Cast: Chadwick Boseman - Nelsan Ellis - Dan Aykroyd



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Posted January 5, 2015 by

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Get On Up Review:

I generally avoid biopics. They’re depressing, and shatter whatever idyllic notion one may have regarding the central subject. Granted, people aren’t perfect, but biopics remind us that great artists were never great human beings.

However, when I caught the trailer of ‘Get on Up’, I couldn’t help but watch the film. It follows the rise and rise of legendary singer James Brown, played by newcomer Chadwick Boseman. I’ll mention here that I am not a big Brown fan, and already had a passing knowledge of the kind of man he was.

The story is told in a non-linear format, but charts his life from extreme poverty to the hard-working musical movement he eventually becomes. Boseman plays Brown from his teenage years to the height of his stardom.

We see Brown’s troubled childhood, which gives him a certain determination to make his life worthwhile. As a pre-teen he comes under the wing of Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), before he gets arrested and meets Bobby Byrd (Ellis) and life changes forever.

Each segment is introduced with one of his songs, essentially giving the audience a sense of the chronology. However, the correlation of the music and the events do not always work. In the segments that showcase the effort that goes behind the creation of his masterpiece work well, but when they’re just about Brown’s activities surrounding a concert where that song was sung, it doesn’t quite gel.

Generally biopics are hard stories to make. Condensing the life-span of a person into two hours means stripping away a lot of meat. And when it’s the life of someone like Brown, who was flamboyant and eccentric, the lack of meat makes the finished product feel stripped bare.

The execution of the film does not do justice to the performances of its stars, especially its main star. Boseman holds this entire film up and his performance is electric. He emulates Brown’s gait, voice and intonation to the tee. I’ll pause here to also congratulate the hair and makeup department for helping him embody such an iconic figure. There are moments in the film when Boseman looks exactly like Brown.

But, back to Boseman. Bringing that intensity to the performance is what gets you through the film. He has the dance moves down pat. He lip-syncs so perfectly, you can believe he’s actually singing. I am shocked that he has not received any nominations so far. It’s a real travesty. I’m hoping that the blu-ray release so close to the Oscar nominations may just tip his name in the hat.

The supporting cast is just as brilliant, including Ellis and the always brilliant Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in their much-curtailed roles.

The film, however, fails in its execution. There is no proper direction – should it follow the rags to riches story, the friendship between Brown and Byrd, the work that Brown puts into his music, his music, or his egotistical and problematic relationships with his wives and colleagues. It’s a mixed bag. With a life like that, it should probably be a mini-series. However, when it’s made as a film, there should be clear route. In this one we’re given snippets of the man, which adds to the entire picture, but it leaves a lot out. His wives are non-entities, and a supposed love triangle doesn’t move beyond a couple of glances during a song. There’s also the character of Byrd, a fascinating person due to his loyalty, but that loyalty has no background. Why does he stick around?

Also, and most importantly, there’s the music. Brown’s music was new – he was about funk, the groove, etc. We see some of the work that goes into making his iconic music. But, we don’t know where or how that inspiration comes from.

There’s also the issue of breaking the fourth-wall. From time to time, Brown talks to the camera, other times he just stares at it – there’s no preamble, no ready reasoning. It took me out of the film completely because it was so contrived. Show, don’t tell.

This is an apt star vehicle for Boseman, who flexes every acting muscle he can. But the finished product feels like a deliberate attempt to subvert a by-the-numbers narrative, only to become exactly that.


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Lestat de Lioncourt
Random Thoughts – Lestat’s Blog
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