What elevates Get on Up beyond standard-issue biopic clichés is the level of psychological depth with which Brown is depicted. Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s insightful screenplay uses arguably the lowest point in Brown’s career as a framing device for the entire story: the 1988 incident in which an armed and intoxicated Brown chastised a group of people in one of his offices for using his private bathroom. The incident sparked an interstate police chase and resulted in a six-year prison sentence (Brown ultimately served three years). The thesis seems clear as we see Brown as a child abandoned by both parents, left to be raised by an “aunt” in a brothel. An early life marked by abandonment, racial discrimination, and profound loss left Brown’s ability to maintain personal and professional relationships later in life permanently compromised. The filmmakers aren’t excusing Brown’s behavioral issues (which include spousal abuse and, though it crept into his life at an atypically late stage, substance abuse), but they do try to connect the dots to offer some idea what elements combined to shape the man’s character.
Rightfully so, the central focus is Brown’s drive to create indelible, influential music. Some have claimed the film doesn’t delve into the methods behind his art quite enough. It’s true that key collaborators, notably trombonist and J.B.’s bandleader during the early ‘70s Fred Wesley, are left out of the story entirely. I contacted Mr. Wesley directly to find out if he had ever been approached by the filmmakers about being a part of the movie; he was not. He and his family were just as puzzled as anyone by his conspicuous absence. Major contributors and innovators within Brown’s musical world, including saxophonists Pee Wee Ellis (Tariq Trotter) and Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson), are portrayed almost as mere sidemen. But one area that Get on Up invests heavily (and pays great emotional dividends) is Brown’s complex relationship with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis).
While it’s true the movie skimps on the success that Byrd had in his own right (with hits singles like “I Know You Got Soul” and “I Need Help (I Can’t Do It Alone)”), it’s absolutely clear in stating that without the early guidance of Bobby Byrd there would’ve likely been no James Brown as we know him. We see Brown’s teenage delinquency which landed him in jail, followed by Byrd’s subsequent discovery of the singing inmate known as “Music Box.” It’s Byrd who convinces his family to take Brown in and who nurtures his musical and performing abilities. Their longtime friendship and artistic partnership is depicted as mutually valuable, yet troubled—especially as Brown’s legendary egotism grows unmanageable. The entire emotional arc of the film is hung on this friendship and Ellis’ fine performance is nearly as important as Boseman’s.
A wealth of compelling moments make Get on Up and indelible portrait of a great artist. As with all biopics, there’s a lot that couldn’t be included in the interest of maintaining an acceptable running time. Luckily, there’s no deadweight in the film’s narrative, which consistently juxtaposes events from different periods in Brown’s life in order to make larger points. There’s simply nothing in the film that could’ve been cut without compromising it, and at two hours and 20 minutes there wasn’t much (if any) room to add to it. Producers Brian Glazer and Mick Jagger, along with the rest of the creative team, have done right by James Brown’s legacy. The rest of the supporting cast turns in strong work, including turns by Dan Aykroyd (as Brown’s manager Ben Bart), Viola Davis (as Brown’s mother Susie), and Lennie James (as Brown’s father Joe).
Universal’s Blu-ray presentation is outstanding, with a razor-sharp transfer of Stephen Goldblatt’s cinematography. The film offers a wildly varied array of settings, ranging from Brown’s rural childhood home to the explosion-heavy skies over Vietnam, resulting in a visually interesting film; kudos to Universal for making the home-viewing experience so perfect. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix makes the most out of the music and live concert sequences, packing plenty of LFE heft and directional effects.
A fine roster of special features supplements the Blu-ray, though don’t expect anything approaching an actual documentary about the real James Brown (for that, definitely see the recent HBO documentary Mr. Dynamite, also produced by Mick Jagger, which is a terrific companion piece to Get on Up). Exclusive to Blu-ray are deleted scenes, most of which were understandably cut. Much more exciting are the “Full Song Performances” and “Extended Song Performances” (some of which also feature additional dialogue, not just longer performance material). There are also the featurettes “The Founding Father of Funk” and “On Stage with The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Bonus features shared by the Blu-ray and DVD editions include three additional featurettes (the best of which focuses on Chadwick Boseman’s transformative performance) and director’s commentary by Tate Taylor. Also included in the Blu-ray package is a standard DVD and UltraViolet Digital Copy.
Though commercial hampered by a poor choice of title (any of Brown’s many nicknames would’ve worked better and communicated the film’s purpose more directly) and the generally mixed (leaning, if anything, toward negative) mainstream public opinion of James Brown as a person, Get on Up is a great movie about a great artist. Highly recommended to existing James Brown fans and the uninitiated alike.