Any biopic is only as good as the actor portraying the subject. Sid and Nancy works because there is no denying Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as the problem-plagued punk icons. Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, is a barely passable Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. When 42 was released last year, it was hard to see newcomer Chadwick Boseman as the legendary Jackie Robinson. Luckily, the actor has been given another shot at African-American historical perspective and he nails James Brown in the bizarro biopic Get On Up. As the funk/soul pioneer, Boseman has it all — the speaking mannerism, the walk, the stage moves, and perhaps most importantly, the large than life persona — down pat. He’s not just a cartoon or caricature of Brown, he is the spiritual spitting image of the late, great hardest working man in show business.
And that’s a very good thing indeed, since the screenplay (by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) and the direction from The Help’s Tate Taylor do everything they can to play down Brown’s legacy. Using a weird, non-linear style, we begin near the end, with our aging idol angry over someone’s use of his private office bathroom. Without warning, we are back in the late ’30s, a kid-version of Brown (Jordan Scott) watching his family fall apart. His momma (an underused Viola Davis) eventually walks out, leaving the boy with his less than caring father (Lennie James). Eventually he is pawned off on an Aunt (Octavia Spencer) who raises him in her brothel.
While in prison on a slight charge, Brown meets up with a local gospel act and their enigmatic leader Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). Vouching for his newfound convict pal’s character, the Fabulous Flames are soon taking the stage. Thanks to some advice from Little Richard (Brandon Smith), Brown ends up on King Records and under the thoughtful management of Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd). For the next thirty years, he will dominate the music industry, setting new standards for black and popular music while earning millions of dollars. He’ll also alienate people and find himself in financial hot water. While his private life is more or less unexplored, we do see Brown with his second wife DeeDee (Jill Scott), as well as explore some of the domestic abuse that plagued his celebrity.
As it continues to skip along the James Brown bio timeline, as it settles in for its songs while never giving much credence to how such amazing music was actually made, Get On Up inspires as many questions as it does desires to jump to one’s feet and dance. This is an exciting and out-of-control effort which manages the rare feat of giving us the essence of Brown without walking us, plot point by plot point, through each and every one of his famous travails. No “Living in America” comeback here. No mention of his influence on rap and hip hop. By settling on the sequences they do, the Butterworths have found the truth about their subject, if not the specific facts. Just those amazing initial moments with an aging Brown angry over the violation of his privacy turns into a telling facet of the man’s complex personality.
Though he merely lip-syncs here, Boseman makes all of this believable. We never doubt that Brown was smarter than Bart when it comes to promotion and making money. When he argues with his band over how each of them are playing a “drum,” no matter what instrument they actually excel at, we get his point. By selling these sequences, by never once dropping the determined, up-from-the-bootstraps drive of Brown and his belief in himself, Get On Up becomes infectious. Yes, the filmmaking is flawed (Taylor still has a long way to go to make a seamless narrative) but even the episodic nature of the story keeps us captivated. That’s because, for all intents and purposes, Chadwick Boseman is James Brown. Without him, Get On Up would be a major league mess. With him, it’s a danceable delight.