Get on Up (2014) 

Elsewhere on this website I have lamented the overuse of a performer reflecting on their life just before a major performance. Refreshingly Get On Up forgoes this biopic trope to open with James Brown trying to uncover who took a dump in his bathroom. The inevitable flashbacks follow, yet they do so in a fluid chronological order identified not just by the year but also by one of Brown’s many nicknames. Whereas such sequences as 'Soul Brother No. 1', 'Mr Dynamite' and 'The Hardest Working Man in Show Business' reveal Brown’s musical ingenuity, it’s the scenes depicting his childhood, titled 'Little Junior', that prove the most illuminating… and confronting.

After being abandoned by his parents, Brown is left in the care of a brothel owner. His only assets are a pair of shoes he took from a lynching victim and a determination to overcome the odds that have him, literally and figuratively, fighting blindfolded with one arm tied behind his back. While serving a lengthy prison sentence for petty theft, Brown’s fortunes improve when he is taken in by the family of Bobby Byrd, an aspiring singer who recognises in Brown a talent that he will never attain. With some helpful advice from Little Richard, a memorable cameo by Brandon Mychal Smith, and the support of agent Ben Bart, Brown succeeds in bringing his unique sound to the masses. However, a consequence of Brown’s fierce belief in himself is the little regard he has for others.

By no means a warts and all portrayal of Brown, the film nevertheless does address some of the more unpleasant aspects of his character. Counterbalancing this is an arresting performance by Chadwick Boseman, who at times addresses the camera not so much in defence of his actions, but in defiance. One notable exception is the scene involving Brown’s spousal abuse. Only once is this depicted and even then it occurs off-camera. As his wife crashes into shot as a consequence of his blow, the singer strides upstage but remains silent, ashamedly averting his eyes from the camera. Given Brown’s well-documented history of domestic violence, this show of remorse rings hollow.

Thankfully, there is no lack of conviction when it comes to staging the musical numbers. Director Tate Taylor magnificently delineates the frenetic energy of a James Brown show, supported by Boseman’s flawless recreation of Brown’s dance moves and his miming of the singer’s live recordings.  One such performance takes place in T.A.M.I. Show, a 1964 concert film in which Brown famously outshone every act on the bill, including The Rolling Stones. Fifty years later, Mick Jagger would serve as producer on this film.

Chadwick Boseman, James Brown, Brandon Mychal Smith, Little Richard
Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman

as James Brown

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Brandon Mychal Smith
Brandon Mychal Smith

as Little Richard

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Aaron Jay Rome
Aaron Jay Rome

as Frankie Avalon

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Nick Eversman
Nick Eversman

as Mick Jagger

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fact check, fact vs fiction, inaccuracies, true story

James Brown did not discharge his firearm during the ‘bathroom’ confrontation depicted in the film’s opening minutes.

Ben Bart’s son maintains that James Brown did not attend his father’s funeral, let alone break down while shovelling dirt into his grave.

Nick Eversman, Mick Jagger, Aaron Jay Rome, Frankie Avalon, scene comparison

Biopic’s only reference to James Brown’s contribution to film is his performance in the concert film T.A.M.I. Show (1964) and his appearance in Ski Party (1965).

Clip courtesy of Dimitri Bitu

ski party, t.a.m.i. show