Get On Up, the 2014 biopic of James Brown, has been on my list for a while now. With the passing of Chadwick Boseman (1976–2020), it shot up to the top. Boseman was only 43, and it feels so sad that he passed away so young, so I wanted to honor him a bit … and I’m glad that I did, as his performance in this is STRONG.
I’m of an age where the music of James Brown is classic, yet I only really knew old/weird James Brown. I admit, I grew up white in the suburbs, and so I didn’t really get his style — in particular, his hair! Now that I’m older and have lived in more diverse areas, learned more about musical styles beyond top 40 pop (and hair metal — oh my early teen years), and learned more about music history, he makes much more sense. Nonetheless, I still didn’t feel like I knew much about James Brown as a person, and I love a good biopic for giving me a (yes, usually fictionalized and generalized) idea of a person’s history.
Overall, I found the film entertaining and interesting, although at 2.5 hours it was a bit long — not in that I wasn’t engaged, but I did have to watch it in two rounds. It’s not a straightforward chronology — it begins in the 1980s, then flashbacks fill in Brown’s childhood growing up in the VERY rural south in the 1930s and 1940s, his early years in music in the 1950s, and his development as an artist. You do learn about the fundamental experiences that shaped his character, but the focus is more on him as an artist and the role he played in life, and less about his inner psychology. In particular, I felt like his relationships with his wives (one of which is basically 2 lines) and his perpetration of domestic abuse could have been more interrogated.
Boseman’s performance is STELLAR. I mostly know Brown from his stage performances, but Boseman’s off-stage portrayal felt very authentic. And DAMN that guy has range, especially when I compare his performances in The Black Panther and Marshall. The supporting cast is great, too, including Viola Davis as Boseman’s mother, Octavia Spencer as Brown’s aunt, and Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) as Bobby Byrd, good friend and member of Brown’s band. The twins Jamarion and Jordan Scott, who played young James Brown, gave particularly haunting performances.
There’s also some HIGH-LARIOUS lines, like when Brown arrives in Vietnam to play for American troops, and an army officer starts to tell him when/where he’ll play. Brown cuts him off with something like, “Do I tell you how to do your job? So don’t tell me where and for how long I can get funky.” Also, when his plane is shot at in Vietnam, Brown says, “Are they shooting at us? They trying to kill James Brown today. You want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?” LOLOLOLOL
Costumes in Get On Up
The costumes were designed by Sharen Davis, a talented designer who is known for doing a lot of films focused on Black stories, including Fences, The Magnificent Seven, Django Unchained, The Help, Dreamgirls, and Devil in a Blue Dress, as well as season 2 of Westworld.
According to an interview with Davis in Variety,
“The script is so wildly nonlinear, I told [director] Tate [Taylor], ‘I think I need to take a few liberties when he’s not onstage.’ Even in performance, she spruced up Brown’s duds, altering the color and the silhouette to ‘snap it up in places just a little bit, or bring it down where we need to bring it down'” (Steve Chagollan, “Davis’ Duds Spiff ‘Up’,” Variety, Aug. 5, 2014, 67).
In another interview, Davis said something similar:
“Tate and I had talked about it, and we decided let’s make this a little surreal, take things a little higher, as opposed to a little lower, as I did on the more realistic “Ray.” We wanted it as if the audience thinks: What am I watching? We’re all watching this man’s energy and flamboyance” (The Envelope: Sharen Davis’ ‘Get On Up’ costumes had to be as flashy as James Brown).
At the same time, Davis felt obliged to try to recreate Brown’s iconic looks, as they “were so James Brown, so sure and well-thought-out, they were almost a film on their own. The 60 costume changes [for actor Chadwick Boseman] gave me a lot to work with” (The Envelope: Sharen Davis’ ‘Get On Up’ costumes had to be as flashy as James Brown).
Working in vaguely chronological order, even though the movie doesn’t:
About the black & white suit, Davis said:
“It was, ‘How are we going to find that fabric?’ because we were mixing it with real concert footage, so it had to be right on. My assistant found it downtown. It wasn’t checkered but an off-white fabric with little black squares. Somehow on camera it worked great. I made three of these suits. We were shooting so fast, Chadwick would dance out of a costume in a day” (The Envelope: Sharen Davis’ ‘Get On Up’ costumes had to be as flashy as James Brown).
The LA Times asked Davis, “The gold lamé Superfly jumpsuit was his iconic flamboyant self. What material was that made from? And where was the ‘sex machine’ belt?” Davis responded:
“That jumpsuit was made out of Armani fabric, and I thought, ‘Giorgio would not believe what I’ve just done to his fabric!’ It was one of my favorite pieces in the film. I didn’t put the belt in because I didn’t want to distract from that scene’s dancing, which was phenomenal. The belt’s so iconic, it needed to be in the right spot, and he didn’t wear it to that concert” (The Envelope: Sharen Davis’ ‘Get On Up’ costumes had to be as flashy as James Brown).
Davis also told the Hollywood Reporter, “For the gold jumpsuit, I took a liberty. I saw a picture of him in it, don’t know exactly where he was, but I liked the color and the way the lighting on the stage worked” (How ‘Get on Up’ Nailed the James Brown Look).
Have you seen Get On Up? What’s your favorite of Chadwick Boseman’s historical roles?