The recent spate of musical biopics over the last decade or so tend to follow a formula: we meet a star at the height of his career, and flashback over his life, beginning with a deprived childhood. From there, life is a rollercoaster of success and failure, with drugs and/or alcohol often playing a role in things. Redemption comes, but the collateral damage is a series of ex-wives, and largely forgotten children. While Get on Up about the life of James Brown, doesn’t wandering far from the formula, the stunning performance of Chadwick Boseman as James Brown, a solid supporting cast, and unforgettable music makes the viewing experience electric.
Set in 1988, the opening scene exemplifies Brown’s decidedly erratic later years. Clad in a track suit, Brown calmly pulls a shotgun on group of businesspeople he suspects of using his private bathroom in the office next door. A fictional scene played largely for comic effect, it does a good job of establishing Brown’s personality: uncompromising, unconventional, and perhaps a bit unstable, the qualities that led him to some legal trouble in later life, are the same qualities that helped him become a legend.
Born in the heart of the Jim Crow south to an abusive father (Lennie James) and neglectful mother (Viola Davis), he spent much of his childhood living in his aunt’s (Octavia Spencer) brothel. Run-ins with the law were frequent, and racism was constant. Before he was even out of his teens, young James had developed a thick skin he would carry with him the rest of his life. James discovers purpose through a friendship with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who helps him assemble the Famous Flames, who catch the attention of record producers and business manager Ben (Dan Aykroyd). Recognizing Brown is a surefire star, Bobby and his bandmates are quickly reduced to playing second fiddle, as James becomes a legend in his own time.
Clearly conflicted, Brown could be a slave driver, demanding absolute perfection at every show. At the same time, he insisted on performing the night after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to prevent a riot. Truthfully, woman seem to be little more than playthings and possessions to him, his past abuse reflected on them. Director Tate Taylor and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth could be criticized for not fully exploring the uglier side of Brown’s life—domestic violence, drug abuse—but perhaps they kept it on the periphery to secure its PG-13 rating.
While the script isn’t perfect, Chadwick Boseman seems to inhabit James Brown. While the actor largely sings over top of Brown’s recorded vocals each performance crackles with an irresistible energy. The man glides across the floor with such ease, I nearly forgot I wasn’t watching James Brown himself. When he speaks, Boseman has Brown’s nearly unintelligible southern twang. The other particularly memorable performance comes from Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd. Byrd stood by James Brown for years, believed in him, even though he could be incredibly cruel. Byrd understood that James Brown was a special talent, and he wanted to be of bringing that to the masses.
While Get on Up isn’t as comprehensive as most would have liked, Chadwick Boseman makes it an exciting, and fitting tribute to Mr. Dynamite.
Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Universal provides a stunning transfer. Images possess wonderful detail, and an infinite sense of depth. Close-ups and mid-level shots are noticeably detailed, showing even the slightest nuances. Primary colors pop nicely throughout, and faces look lifelike. Blacks are rich, and light, dynamic. Universal has done a fine job here.
The lossless DTS-HD MA soundtrack has solid dynamic range, and clarity that allows for even the most subtle of background noises to be heard. Musical numbers are well spread throughout the channels, with vocals featured in the fronts. Spoken dialogue is firmly planted in the center channel and renders voices with distinction. A nice low level bass is apparent throughout.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary with Director Tate Taylor: Taylor provides some interesting tidbits about the production process, but this commentary would have been better served if he had one of the actors along to share their thoughts.
- 10 Deleted/Extended scenes (HD, 15:03)
- Full Song Performances (HD, 9:24) “Out of Sight,” “Steal Away,” “I’ll Go Crazy” and “Cold Sweat”
- Extended Song Performance (HD, 7:27) Two of “Please Please Please,” including a live one, and the other of “Say It Loud.”
- Long Journey to the Screen (HD, 3:58) A brief discussion of the long process it took to get the film made.
- Chadwick Boseman: Meet Mr. James Brown (HD, 11:25) A look at what it took to transform Chadwick Boseman into James Brown.
- The Get On Up Family (HD, 6:27) A look at the supporting cast.
- On Stage with the Hardest Working Man (HD, 6: 25) A look at the musicians/actors who shared the stage with Boseman.
- The Founding Father of Funk (HD, 13:19) Fellow musicians talk about James Brown’s influence on their careers. Interviewees include: Cee-Lo Green and Pharrell Williams.
- Tate Taylor’s Acting Class (HD, 6:57) Essentially, this is a couple of scenes where Taylor waits to yell cut; instead, he lets the camera roll.
- DVD Copy of the film.
- UltraViolet/iTunes copy of the film.
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