Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Get On Up (Movie Review)

By Freda Cooper 17.11.2014

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Get On Up (Movie Review)

Get On Up (UK Rating: 12A)

There are some big guns arriving at the cinema this coming Friday, not the least of which is the much-anticipated The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. However, to coin a phrase, other films are available - and Lights, Camera, Action! takes a look at the James Brown bio-pic, Get On Up, which is released around the UK on Friday, 21st November.

Big films mean big names, and they don't stop at the cast. Associated with the James Brown bio-pic Get On Up are the likes of Mick Jagger as producer; Jez Butterworth, author of the multi award-winning play, Jerusalem; Bobby Byrd, Brown's real life friend and collaborator portrayed in the film by Nelsan Ellis; and director Tate Taylor, whose The Help was nominated for several Oscars. Then there's Brown himself, of course, the eccentric, electric and a 20th Century musical legend.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Get On Up (Movie Review)

Brown (Chadwick Boseman) was raised in grinding poverty in rural South Carolina, witnessing his parents' volatile marriage. His mother eventually deserted him, then his father left him with an aunt who ran a bordello. The independently-minded boy got in with the wrong crowd, but a chance meeting with Bobby Byrd (Ellis) introduced him to a gospel choir. His talent was obvious, as was the fact that he should be the front man, and the film charts his rise to the top, as well as the highs and lows that went with his success.

The man who became known as The Godfather of Soul is a dream for any actor and Chadwick Boseman's casting in the role got a lot of attention. His performance as Jackie Robinson in baseball drama 42 earlier this year marked him out as a rising star, but that promise splutters here. The fact that he doesn't do his own singing isn't a problem - he would have been hard pushed to emulate Brown's unique style - but what he can't quite nail is the magnetism and near-megalomania of the man. His massive set of false teeth also makes things harder for him, as he's often difficult to understand. Where he does score is in portraying Brown's razor sharp business brain and single-mindedness in rejecting the established system for promoting a concert by getting a sponsor and then watching the money roll in. Aside from this, though, he's more the 'Godson' of Soul than the Godfather.

Director Taylor has tried to do something different with the bio-pic structure, starting at the beginning of Brown's life and then switching back and forth to cover the main events of his life. It works best when there's a connection between the sequences, but when the link isn't there - and it happens too often - it's frustrating and looks showy. While it's a bold move, Taylor seems to be trying to be too clever and it only partly comes off.

A few individual scenes, however, stand out as pure class. The now-successful Brown meeting his mother (Viola Davis) after years apart and paying her off is full of bitterness, anger, and regret. It's probably the best scene in the entire film. The concert sequences are also strong, especially the one in Boston that takes place the night after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The tension in the air crackles on the screen and is almost tangible.

There's real depth in the supporting cast, especially in the shape of Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd. It's the less showy part, but Ellis is superb as somebody who realised he never had what it took to be the front man and settled for being number two. Viola Davis is pitiful and despicable in equal measure as Brown's mother, while the ever-excellent Octavia Spencer is his feisty aunt.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Get On Up (Movie Review)

Rated 6 out of 10


Get On Up's attempt to do something different with the bio-pic format reflects some of James Brown's own courage, but little of his success. At nearly two and a half hours long, it cries out for the more direct approach of the man himself. It's a fascinating story, full of cinematic potential, but it needs an equally great actor to bring it to life, and Boseman hasn't reached that level. Yet.

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