On the evidence of Get On Up, R&B legend James Brown was a man given to referring to himself in the third person, usually while reminding people of his fortitude and genius. If the high-energy feature demonstrates anything, it’s that the self-made superstar was a propulsive, take-no-prisoners personality — someone whose sense of heroic destiny could be exhausting as well as exhilarating for those around him. In sync with its subject, director Tate Taylor’s movie, too, can be wearying, especially in the strenuously scrambled chronology of its early sequences. But under the guidance of producer Mick Jagger, it’s that rare musician’s biography with a deep feel for the music. And inChadwick Boseman, it has a galvanic core, a performance that transcends impersonation and reverberates long after the screen goes dark.
Despite a “James Brown 101” coda that targets young ’uns unfamiliar with the Godfather of Soul, the picture itself is anything but pedantic. Working from a screenplay by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, Taylor aims, admirably if not always successfully, to break or at least shake up the conventional biopic mold.
Given the draw of an iconic pop-culture figure and his music (new mixes of Brown’s original recordings), as well as the nostalgia factor for older viewers and what promises to be upbeat word of mouth, Get On Up is primed for a strong chart run. Like Taylor’s previous feature, The Help, it’s an August release with broad appeal, and it, too, will have staying power.
Refusing to sugarcoat a complex and often unlikable man, and rarely lapsing into sentimentality, the movie covers most of Brown’s life, with Boseman’s gutsy, uncanny portrayal encompassing his teen years through his 60s. Twins Jamarion Scott and Jordan Scott play Brown as a child, conveying his self-possession and powerful connection to gospel’s ecstatic rhythms. All three actors are called upon to break the fourth wall, addressing the camera in asides that usually state the obvious.
Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42, taps straight into the doggedness, grandiosity and self-reliance that kept even those closest to Brown at a remove. A couple of crucial deaths in the story have no dramatic impact because, although a few key relationships are sharply etched as the story jumps back and forth through the decades, it’s the music that propels the action. Thomas Newman’s broody score provides an effective counterpoint to the funkadelic heat.
Re-creating a wide assortment of shows, everywhere from a Georgia roadhouse to a Paris concert hall and the war zone of Vietnam (all played by Mississippi), Taylor and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt capture the intensity, if not the storied length, of Brown’s concerts. (A few inserts of black-and-white archival footage shatter, rather than bolster, the spell.) If the “honky hoedown” corniness that Brown and the Famous Flames find on the set of the Frankie Avalon movie Ski Party feels overstated in its jokiness, Taylor offers the perfect antidote in the super-sexualized fervor of their early shows for black audiences. Whatever the venue, Boseman has the dance moves down, splits included. He's got the swagger, onstage and off, to own the bold looks of Sharen Davis' costumes.
As central figures in Brown's life, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott and Lennie Jamesmake the most of brief screen time. A beautifully played scene pairs Davis and Boseman in a decisive confrontation between Brown and the mother who abandoned him years earlier. But the story’s emotional nucleus, beyond Brown’s drive to perform, is his musical association with singer Bobby Byrd. Imbuing the part with a grounded warmth, True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis is superb, the yin to Boseman’s yang. The bond between Brown and his longtime manager (Dan Aykroyd), on the other hand, never comes alive, veering toward the cartoonish as it traces Big Career Moments.
Broad strokes also shape many of the film’s comments on American racial politics. As in The Help, white bigotry is often reduced to caricature (witness Allison Janney’s unfortunate cameo). Yet there are potent, nuanced observations, as well: young James pulling two-tone oxfords off a lynched man; the tension at Brown’s Boston Garden show the night after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder; and the searing childhood memory of a horrendous form of entertainment once popular with the Southern country-club set.
Grasping the essence of a larger-than-life story with imagination and energy, Get On Up doesn’t quite succeed at shedding the biopic template, but it finds its own beat as it tries.
Production companies: A Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Jagged Films/Brian Grazer production in association with Wyolah Films
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Jacinte Blankenship, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott, Allison Janney
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Producers: Brian Grazer, Mick Jagger, Victoria Pearman, Erica Huggins, Tate Taylor
Executive producers: Peter Afterman, Trish Hofmann, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, John Norris, Anna Culp
Director of photography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Michael McCusker
Composer: Thomas Newman
Executive music producer: Mick Jagger
Choreographer: Aakomon Jones
Rated PG-13, 139 minutes