Chadwick Boseman kills as James Brown in spotty but fun ‘Get On Up’
It’s hard to get a movie biography right. If the subject is in show business, the problem becomes how to cherry-pick key moments from an entire life, let alone career highs and lows, then shoehorn them into an easily digestible two-hour-ish format while creating a story arc that makes sense, and an emotional thread that keeps viewers involved. The usual result is an all-too-predictable narrative journey from hungry youth to glitzy stardom to decline, where the characters onscreen never really come alive.
But James Brown blazes to life in the movie bio Get On Up, partly because of the filmmakers’ smart, unorthodox storytelling, but mostly thanks to an incendiary performance by Chadwick Boseman. No, Boseman doesn’t do his own singing (who would dare?); the soundtrack features mostly the recordings of Mr. Brown himself. But Boseman captures the volatility, on and offstage, of the entity we recognize as James Brown, the flamboyance, the fierce ambition, and the uncompromising determination to be treated with respect. (He also dances up a storm!)
His performance is perfect for the impressionistic approach of director Tate Taylor (his last film was The Help), and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth. Instead of laying out the usual dreary rise-and-fall scenario, the filmmakers open with a kaleidoscope of moments—an iconic James Brown marching down a tunnel to a stage, a druggy Brown entering a business he owns with a rifle during a seminar, young James in his prime, on a 1968 USO tour of Vietnam, cheering on his band as their army transport plane is practically shot out from under them.
Only in bits and pieces sandwiched between such big moments does the backstory of the impoverished little boy growing up in the rural backwoods of Augusta, Georgia, begin to emerge. We see him abandoned first by his runaway mother (Viola Davis) fleeing an abusive husband, then by his father, who leaves him at the local house of pleasure to be raised by the sympathetic madam (Octavia Spencer). We see an encounter with a revivalist preacher (Clyde Jones) that will influence his later performing style.
The gospel group, The Starlights, morph into grown-up James’ first back-up band, The Famous Flames. Women and children come and go. A demo record is cut (“Please, Please, Please”), and James brings funk to the masses. Dan Aykroyd contributes some nice bits as the unlikely “old Jew” of a manager, Ben Bart, who sticks with James through good times and bad. But the film’s main emotional hook involves James and longtime friend and bandmate, Bobby Byrd (well-played by Nelsan Ellis).
Here, they meet in a prison infirmary (teenage James is serving time for stealing a suit) after straight-arrow Bobby, one of the Starlights, is injured during a performance for the inmates. After hearing James sing, Bobby not only brings him into the group, but into the Byrd household, the only family James has ever known. Through changing fortunes, Bobby remains James’head cheerleader, official BS-detector, and conscience. He weathers all of James’ emotional firestorms except the one that finally drives him away, providing closure for the finale, when James sings a make-up song to him from the stage.
All of it plays out amid a revolving prism of James Brown stage entities (“Mr. Dynamite,” “The Hardest-Working Man In Show Business,” “The Godfather of Soul”) and the performances that go with them (not to mention the hairstyles, from extreme pompadour to modified Afro to the long, side-swept pageboy he affected in his later years). In one tasty moment, James gets some sound advice from the ‘Tutti-Frutti”-era Little Richard, played to fresh, flirty perfection by the scene-stealing Brandon Smith.
Now and then, James breaks out of a scene to speak directly to the movie audience, a stage-like device that helps keep all the balls of plot and incident spinning. Get On Up may be a bit too big and busy for its own good, but as a homage to a self-made American R&B original (it was co-produced by lifelong fan Mick Jagger), it delivers the goods.
GET ON UP *** (out of four) With Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, and Viola Davis. Written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth. Directed by Tate Taylor. A Universal release. Rated PG-13. 138 minutes.