Review: ‘Get On Up’ Is Basically ‘Walk Hard: The James Brown Story’

Get On Up: The Unironic Dewey Cox Story

“Quiet, y’all. Dewey Cox gotta think about his whooole life before he sing.”

So begins the criminally underrated musician biopic spoof Walk Hard, in which fictional rock legend Dewey Cox takes the long walk to the stage with the crowd chanting his name, pausing to reflect on life and thereby initiate a series of flashbacks that will become the movie – from a poor childhood through a series of rocky relationships to his current status as self-assured legend, a live lived hard that taught him to… walk hard. So also begins Get On Up, a James Brown biopic directed by Tate Taylor (The Help) starring Chadwick Boseman as the hardest working man in show business, which follows Brown from his sharecropper childhood to eventually being raised in a Georgia brothel, going to prison, joining a gospel band, making it big, having band troubles, having lady troubles, having police troubles, having toilet troubles, until that third act concert scene brings it all full circle and makes everaythaaang seeem allllll right. And all because he learned that no matter how many times you get knocked down, you just have to keep telling yourself to Get. On. U-(*hit by truck*)

The film jumps from time period to time period with James Brown learning or teaching some important lesson in each vignette. Important notes that really get to the heart of the man, like “you gotta pay the cost to be the boss” and “if it feels good, it’s music.” You know, not just something you could’ve come up with from reading the liner notes (wink wink, sarcasm sarcasm).

Amongst all the supposedly formative experiences of James Brown’s life, amazingly, one thing we never see James Brown doing is, you know, actually learning how to play music.

Seems like that would be important, no?

Early on in the film, we see James Brown and his band in a cargo plane on their way to play for the troops in Vietnam. They’re taking heavy fire and everyone’s scared, everyone except of course James, who doesn’t want to talk about the flak exploding around him. He only wants to complain about why he was only allowed to bring six members of his 22-piece band. He’s not scared, you see, because James Brown didn’t care about such trivialities as his plane losing one of its engines, he only cared about the funk, baby, that’s why he was James Brown! It’s a cute story, but the problem is, all I could think about during the scene (other than “I bet this didn’t actually happen this way,” which would become a theme throughout the movie) was “this dude was leading a 22-piece orchestra? I sure hope they show how he actually learned to do that and not just more mystical ‘groove is in the heart’ bullshit.”

No such luck, of course. Screenwriters write what they know, and they tend to treat music the same way they treat sports, where no one actually practices or learns important techniques; proficiency in any discipline a just a long process of finding the right metaphor. It’s just like in the Paul Giamatti Sundance dramedy Win Win, when Giamatti’s character gives his semi-adopted wrestling prodigy son the opportunity to school his team on some techniques. “How did you do that?” he asks.  “I just pretend I’m f*ckin’ drowning,” the kid says. Cool, man, helpful. Likewise, we watch a movie like Get On Up and we’re left to conclude “Ooohhh, he must’ve learned those horn runs from waiting for his mother outside of the brothel! NOW I get it!”

All of which is to say: if you want to see a slight variation on every biopic you’ve ever seen but with some James Brown music, go see Get On Up. If you actually want to learn anything about James Brown, probably read a book or something.

Keep in mind, I don’t necessarily mean this as a damning criticism of the film. James Brown music can give you goosebumps involuntarily, make you lasciviously move your hips at a funeral, and probably cure cancer. You better believe it can elevate an otherwise mediocre biopic. While Get On Up surely didn’t waste much time writing an original script or probably researching James Brown’s life, they did a stupendous job casting, starting with Chadwick Boseman who is as good at mimicking Brown’s ringing power chord speaking voice as he is at nailing Brown’s controlled cocaine party dance moves. And on down through the supporting players, from Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd to Brandon Smith’s memorable cameo as Little Richard, almost the perfect non-parody version of Jack White as Elvis in Walk Hard.

My screening was packed with slightly older, nicely dressed black couples as if we were going to a tent revival, and they played call and response with the projection of fictional James Brown as if he was a live preacher. In the scene where James’ dad slaps around his mom and basically rapes her, I overheard “He dirty though!” (woman) and “That’s how they did it back then,” (man) from the couple sitting behind me. If you have an option to see the film in this manner, I would highly recommend it.

And speaking as a white dude who came of age in the nineties, even I have to admit that I don’t think popular music has ever reached the pinnacle it hit with black soul music in the sixties, especially when it comes to hypnotizing an audience. A few weeks back I hosted a bar trivia night in San Francisco and during the music round I threw in “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. I looked up 15 seconds into it and I swear to God half the crowd was slow dancing. If I’d let the entire song play I’m convinced someone would’ve gotten pregnant. And keep in mind, these are white people playing trivia, who are about as prone to spontaneous dancing as German mathematicians.

Get On Up follows James Brown through gospel, sixties soul, early rock, and the birth of funk, and while it’s not always a great movie, it’s a hell of a dance party. Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t like James Brown music? Hitler, probably, or Ted Nugent.

So, while it pains me that they couldn’t even break out of the traditional biopic structure for James Brown – not even for JAMES BROWN!?!? YOU’RE TELLING ME YOU COULDN’T MAKE AN INTERESTING MOVIE ABOUT THIS GUY!?!

His domestic violence record got about 30 seconds of screen time followed by a weird sex scene (as if to say “oops, maybe she liked it!”) and never even broached Brown’s controversial support of Nixon.

It’s painful, excruciating to see such a bizarre, compelling personality pureed and dumped inside the homogenized Hollywood piping bag of pedestrian biopics, but sitting through two hours of a movie that never goes more than 10 minutes without a James Brown song is, let’s be honest, never going to be that bad a time.


Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.