Chadwick Boseman does not look likes James Brown. He did not look like Jackie Robinson either before playing #42 in last year’s hit about the barrier-shattering athlete, but Boseman’s magnetism and charm made up for his leanness and lack of cosmetic similarity. Now, the young actor has mastered another legendary man of the 20th century, the groovy funkster whose howl on “I Got You (I Feel Good)” is still one of the most exhilarating moments in popular music.
As James Brown in Get On Up, Boseman wears a heavy jaw of make-up on his face, which could have been more distracting had the actor not nailed the slurred speech, the electric rasp, and the dazzling dancing feet of the pop music icon. It’s an performance that is as impressive as Jamie Foxx’s show-stopping turn as Ray Charles ten years ago. (Like Foxx, though, Boseman does not do all of the singing.)
Unlike 42, which focused more specifically on Robinson’s rise in baseball and the fiery racism that greeted his early trips to the plate, Get On Up is a “kitchen sink” biopic, trying to cram multiple biographies worth of story into a jazzy, 138-minute package. The drama, from The Help director Tate Taylor, has a bit of a rocky start, bouncing without much of a rhythm from one of Brown’s last public performances to his childhood in rural South Carolina. The film then shifts awkwardly from a drunken encounter in the 1980s when he held his office at gunpoint to a near-death experience as Brown and his band flew into Vietnam in the late 1960s to entertain the troops. The film’s screenplay, from Edge of Tomorrow scribes Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, sometimes jumps around between eras without much in the way of structure or control. (One feels that there is a less stilted director’s cut that runs closer to three hours.)
Once the film stops moving around though, Boseman and the rest of the cast succeed in keeping us rapt in Brown’s musical journey. Get On Up focuses less on the singer’s struggle with family as it does on his relationship with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), his close friend and member of his Famous Flames who had no problem staying in the shadows of Brown’s ego. Get On Up is more concerned with Brown’s contributions to popular music than his beleaguered home life.
“Every record you got has got a piece of me in it,” Boseman tells the camera early on. (The actor breaks the fourth wall, a la Jersey Boys, in a creative choice that is playful and sometimes silly.) Michael Jackson’s weightless dance moves, Prince’s sexual theatricality and Kanye West’s megalomania certainly owe much to Brown. Regardless, the film does not turn into a hagiographic portrait of the influential artist. Instead, we watch him cooperate with record producers that offer him a much larger piece of the pie than his band-mates.
Boseman plays Brown across a span of more than 40 years. The actor is funny, a ferocious dancer and nails the energy, both positive and negative, that made Brown such a dazzling performer onstage and demanding creative force behind the scenes. One wishes Taylor could have scrapped a couple scenes of Brown fighting with his band for greater context of the musician’s family life, which remains a tad too elusive.
While this is clearly Boseman’s show, he does get a lot of support from a backing band of stellar performers. Among them, ex-Disney Channel star Brandon Mychal Smith does a Little Richard impersonation so uncanny that he even upstages Boseman during their two scenes together. Blues brother Dan Aykroyd also has a fine, sometimes funny turn as Brown’s early manager, Ben Bart. Meanwhile, the quiet moments with Nelsan Ellis grounds Boseman’s performance and allows the actor to show something recognizably human, a man hoping for a friend that he can share his dreams with.
Taylor, whose friendship with The Help author Kathryn Stockett helped him land that novel’s film adaptation, does not have a bag of tricks for how to fight the biopic formula. However, like the man whose career he profiles, Taylor has electrifying control of the stage performances. The concert sequences are nearly flawless, masterfully edited by Michael McCusker (who also cut Walk the Line) as the shots keep up with Brown’s dancing shoes without losing focus of what is going on in the frame. The sound mix is refined, letting all elements in the scene – the excited crowd, the various musicians behind Brown, the Soul Man himself – blend together better than any mix could have sounded at a 1960s concert. The concert get-ups from costume designer Sharen Davis (Dreamgirls) are also era-perfect.
The one main caveat about Get On Up is that a movie about The Godfather of Soul seems to lack a soul. The film only spends a bit of time with Brown’s family, such as the mother (Viola Davis) who abandoned him when he was a young boy. Davis is an actor of unmitigated intensity, so it is unfortunate that she only shares one heart-breaking scene with Boseman. (Her Help co-star Octavia Spencer also makes an extended if pointless cameo as Brown’s aunt Honey.) We also see brief glimpses of the singer with his children, and only a couple of moments with the wife (Jill Scott) he loved and abused at equal measure.
“I paid the cost to be the boss,” Brown says at the end of Taylor’s film, a sentiment we can only half-agree with. Although the film touches on his troubled family life when he was a boy and some of the racially insensitive moments that motivated his rise to stardom, Get On Up avoids the more difficult aspects of the performer’s life once his fame becomes the film’s driving force. Although Get On Up is a haphazard biopic, it is usually invigorating and boosted by an Oscar-worthy turn from a man who, like Brown, has no shortage of star quality.
A sensational, swaggering performance by Chadwick Boseman keeps the funk alive and lifts Get On Up from the tired biopic formula.