With their wide-eyed time-spans and often illustrious content, the humble Hollywood biopic has come to be known to many as the finest example of “awards bait”. This is not to say that crafting one is any easy feat however: how exactly does one cram an entire life’s worth of material into a mere few hours of film? This of course becomes even trickier when the character in question is none other than the self-proclaimed ‘Godfather of Soul’ Mr James Brown; one of the most highly-distinguished and enigmatic names in music history. It seems fair to say that director Tate Taylor, fresh off his success with civil-rights dramedy The Help, was seemingly feeling every bit up to the challenge. But with a life as endlessly twisted and challenging as Brown’s, was he, or anyone for that matter, right to do so?
As suggested above, Get On Up (named for one of his most famed tracks) charts the life and times of funk music legend James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) and his rise from poverty to stardom in the American south. Adopting a mad-cap structure akin to the singer’s own energetic style, the film dives between multiple timelines, attempting to uncover the most remarkable and important events in Brown’s decade-spanning career. The result is as expected, a film that’s both bouncy and jubilant, but also a horrendous mess.
For a film so obviously divided between the show-stoppingly brilliant and deeply dubious, it’s really rather difficult deciding on where to start, but the most prominent side seems as good a place as any. Thankfully for Get On Up, this is its tremendous humour and soul, perfectly embodied by the film’s star, the young Chadwick Boseman, firing off a performance so richly detailed and powerfully entertaining that he basically steers the entire movie alone. Capturing the true essence of anyone is very much a bleak task, but with a figure as loudly-spirited as James Brown, it’s near-impossible. The very fact that Boseman manages to make it look easy then, makes him into something else entirely – a bonafide genius. At times (oddly enough, particularly in his twilight years) it almost feels as if the viewer is actually watching Brown himself, somehow diving about on stage from beyond the grave. It is, without doubt or exaggeration, easily one of the most memorable and commendable performances of the year.
It comes as a tremendous blow then that the actual film itself is, for the most part, a jumbled wreck. Each chapter in Brown’s life that director Taylor visits is actually rather well-realised, it’s the organisation of them within the film’s overall structure that ultimately sinks it. After beginning at the end, Taylor darts back to the middle of Brown’s story then promptly gets lost, firing off anecdote after anecdote without any real sense of progression. In fact, the film jumps forwards and backwards across Brown’s timeline so many times that even with convenient little time-stamps as reminders, it’s insanely difficult trying to place what one is currently seeing within the frame of what one has already seen. It’s also this colossal oversight that shatters any sense of energy built up throughout the picture, meaning even Taylor’s grand musical numbers don’t hit nearly as hard they potentially could.
Well and truly sunk by a clearly muddled style, and then raised exponentially by a world-beating lead performance, Get On Up stands as one of the most divided films of the year. Although former director-extraordinaire Tate Taylor wins no points for his narrative butchery, the fresh-faced Chadwick Boseman bursts onto the silver screen with a career-defining achievement in only his second major role. With a great deal of well-deserved Oscar buzz surrounding his James Brown and a full slate as Marvel’s latest superhero Black Panther on the horizon, Hollywood may have just found its next great leading man.
Get On Up (2014), directed by Tate Taylor, is released in UK cinemas by Universal Pictures, Certificate 12A.
Despite an unsteady structure, Taylor's film is elevated from the dark depths of total and utter confusion by a phenomenal, world-beating lead performance.