The Godfather of Soul is the subject of a rollicking if ultimately milquetoast biopic with Get on Up, showcasing a dynamite Chadwick Boseman as James Brown. The movie is entertaining, and it does flirt with the more controversial aspects of Brown’s life—but it plays things a little too safe.
A true telling of James Brown’s often insane life would be a real powder keg of a movie. In this PG-13 film, director Tate Taylor (The Help) doesn’t avoid the domestic violence, drugs and brushes with the law that were a mainstay in Brown’s life, but he does treat those aspects as a side note. The film’s focus stays primarily on Brown’s tough upbringing and his music. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does result in a missed opportunity for greatness.
The movie, which is not told chronologically, starts with the events leading up to the infamous police chase that landed Brown in jail for three years. Boseman is nothing short of amazing in these scenes as a somewhat crazy, older Brown, brandishing a shotgun and seeking out the person who dared to take a dump in his bathroom.
The film then bounces around in time, showing Brown as a young child in Augusta, Ga., and going all the way up to his latter years as a performer. This narrative technique is certainly fun; Boseman even breaks the fourth wall to chat with the audience—something that is a bit jarring at first, but eventually works.
The film highlights many of the legendary concerts in Brown’s career, including his groundbreaking first concert at the Apollo and the healing experience that was a Boston concert shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In most of these scenes, Boseman is lip-synching to Brown’s voice, but he does sing a few passages in the film using his own vocals. Taylor puts it all together seamlessly.
As for the physicality of his performance, Boseman is a kinetic marvel. He truly becomes James Brown, immaculately re-creating the dance moves and stage theatrics that made Brown one of the all-time-great performers. His method of delivering dialogue is, quite appropriately, not always intelligible: Brown had a tendency to mumble and ramble as he got older, and Boseman doesn’t shy away from that. Somehow, I still managed to understand everything he was saying.
Viola Davis is good in her few scenes as Brown’s troubled mother. Dan Aykroyd and Craig Robinson impress as Brown’s manager, Ben Bart, and saxophonist Maceo Parker, respectively. The supporting cast’s most valuable player is Nelsan Ellis, as longtime Brown sideman Bobby Byrd. His part is essentially the voice of reason in the madness that was often Brown’s life.
This story took a long time getting to the big screen, with everybody from Wesley Snipes to Eddie Murphy rumored to play Brown. Spike Lee was attached to direct at one point; he was also attached to a Jackie Robinson biopic. The eventual 42 was not directed by Lee, but did star Boseman. I guess this sort of makes Boseman an enemy of Spike Lee by default.
If you want to see somebody kick major ass with the James Brown dance moves, Get on Up definitely delivers. If you are looking for a biopic that truly captures Brown’s amazingly crazy life, you’ll have to keep waiting. This movie, while fun, doesn’t even scratch the surface.
Get on Up is playing at theaters across the valley.