James Brown is an icon of 20th century American music; a uniquely singular hitmaker and showstopping performer whose body of work provided the template for soul and funk and set the stage for hip-hop’s emergence. But the man beyond the performer was, like so many gifted artists, a tortured and conflicted soul. And that soul is at the heart of the biopic Get On Up.
Chadwick Boseman, fresh from his acclaimed performance as Jackie Robinson in 2013’s 42, slides into the sequined suits of The Godfather of Soul quite effortlessly here. Boseman captures Brown’s charisma onstage as well as his hard-driving ways offstage: both Brown’s reputation as a taskmaster to his backing band and, to a lesser degree, his tendency to physically abuse the women in his life are filtered through Boseman’s compelling performance.
On the latter subject, director Tate Taylor and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth acknowledge Brown’s abusive ways without truly delving into them. A history of watching his mother and father’s abusive relationship is alluded to, but one gets the sense that the filmmakers didn’t want to spend too much time on James’ domestic issues. Nonetheless, Boseman’s scenes with Jill Scott, who plays his second wife Deedee Jenkins, are some of the best in the film; with Scott again proving that she is woefully underrated as an actress.
The relationship at the center of the film isn’t a romantic bond, however, but a brotherly one. Brown’s longtime friendship with his bandmate Bobby Byrd is essentially the movie’s heart and soul, with Nelsan Ellis (of “True Blood” fame) providing a noble and nuanced performance as Brown’s most famous sideman.
The filmmakers attempted to shake up the all-too-familiar tropes of the standard big-budget biopic: Boseman as Brown consistently breaks the fourth wall to share his thoughts, the story isn’t told chronologically–which makes for awkward pacing initially; and there isn’t a clear-cut female “lead” per se, though the aforementioned Scott, Octavia Spencer (as the brothel owner who raised James Brown) and Viola Davis (as his absentee biological mother) all give stellar performances in what amounts to relatively little screen time.
Get On Up isn’t quite the high watermark that was Ray, What’s Love Got To Do With It or Walk the Line, but it is a solid introduction for those unfamiliar with James Brown’s legacy and another strong showcase for the talent of Chadwick Boseman.