The first and most important hurdle to clear when you’re making a film about legendary singer James Brown is to find yourself a quality James Brown. The filmmakers of Get On Up were smart: They rose to the challenge by casting Chadwick Boseman as the “godfather of soul.”
Boseman — who played another, less flamboyant legend when he starred as Jackie Robinson in 42 — embodies the funk singer to near perfection: his cocky attitude, his electric stage presence, his practical street smarts, his hurtful and sometimes dangerous narcissism. As a result, the concert scenes in this biographical picture are some of its best moments — you’ll wonder just how long the actor had to practice to perfect all those splits — and Boseman’s charisma is irresistible.
But much like Brown’s own stormy life, the movie has its downside. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) takes a nonlinear approach to telling the story of the singer’s life, and the decision turns out to be mostly but not wholly effective. On one hand, framing the movie out of chronological order keeps the pace unexpectedly lively; the audience never knows what’s coming next, so there’s no “let’s get to the good stuff” impatience.
But the movie never truly touches you emotionally, and it should. It’s the story about a kid who grew up in poverty in rural Georgia, met the right people at the right time, believed in himself and, blessed with tremendous talent, went on to great success, which inevitably comes with a price.
Taylor gets fine supporting work from Nelsan Ellis (you know him as Lafayette on True Blood) as Bobby Byrd, Brown’s musical partner for decades until Brown’s selfishness caused a rupture in their friendship. The director calls on two of his The Help alumni for smaller but equally important roles: Viola Davis plays the battered mother who abandons James when he was a boy but who pops back into his life during the height of his fame, and Octavia Spencer plays the auntie who steps in as a guardian when the boy’s father (Lenny James) enlists in the military. She puts young James to work luring soldiers into her brothel, but she also provides him with the confidence he’ll need on the road to stardom. Only the casting of Dan Aykroyd as Brown’s agent feels false; you’re always aware of the actor, not the character.
The film, which takes great pains to stay PG-13 rated, offers up only a brief medley of James Brown’s Greatest Mistakes, referencing the legal troubles that plagued Brown throughout his life in cinematic shorthand. Taylor offers up a quick shot of him lacing a hand-rolled cigarette with what could be PCP and shows one quick physical assault on one of his wives (the car chase in 1988 that landed him in jail on weapons and drug charges gets slightly more attention).
None of these events is examined in depth, as if the screenwriters felt obligated to mention them but didn’t really want to stand in the way of myth making. To be fair, Brown’s civil rights work is given short shrift, too. But if you want to dance? Get On Up delivers the funk, which Brown himself would tell you never dies.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Dan Aykroyd, Lenny James, Jill Scott, Craig Robinson.
Director: Tate Taylor.
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Steven Baigelman.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 138 minutes. Sexual content, drug use, some strong language, violent situations. Playing at: area theaters.