Film review: James Brown gets the biopic treatment in ‘Get on Up’

Chadwick Boseman (who played Jackie Robinson in the more stolid biopic 42) plays James Brown in Get on Up.

Two and a half stars

Get on Up Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd. Directed by Tate Taylor. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

Director Tate Taylor (The Help) and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth try to mix up the conventional music biopic with Get on Up, but they do that by almost literally mixing it up. Tracing the life and career of funk legend James Brown, Get on Up is full of standard-issue biopic moments, but they’re played slightly out of order, with a fractured chronology that’s more confusing than illuminating. Mostly the movie proceeds as expected, from Brown’s rough childhood to his meeting with longtime friend and collaborator Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) to his rise to fame and then his later personal troubles.

That last part gets buried a bit, with very little time devoted to Brown’s demons, including his propensity for domestic violence and his drug use. This is a purely celebratory film, with Chadwick Boseman (who played Jackie Robinson in the more stolid biopic 42) radiating exuberance as Brown, and the man’s classic music infusing the entire production. So what if the female characters, including wives, mistresses and Brown’s estranged mother (Viola Davis), barely register as human beings? Get on Up isn’t really interested in saying or doing anything contentious, which is one reason the jumbled narrative structure feels out of place.

In centering the movie on Brown’s relationship with Byrd, Taylor occasionally finds insightful moments, and he stages one scene, with Brown quelling an anxious crowd following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., that has real power. Mostly, though, Get on Up is bland and respectful, a tribute album in the guise of a mixtape.

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