Review By Brandon Wolfe
Our first glimpse of soul legend James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) is not a favorable one. In Augusta in 1988, a disheveled Brown pulls into a strip mall’s parking lot in a rickety pickup truck and enters a dreary business office that he owns. A seminar of some sort is being held inside and Brown notices that his private bathroom has been used by one of the attendees.
He then proceeds to return to his truck to retrieve a shotgun, which he brandishes at the terrified drones, forcing them to dive out of their folding chairs in abject fear. Accidentally firing off a shot into the ceiling, Brown demands to know which among them relieved his or herself in his personal washroom before ascertaining the culprit, a tearful older woman. Brown ultimately decides to let the whole thing slide, but not before police sirens cry out in the distance. Clearly we are not catching the Godfather of Soul on his best day.
‘Get On Up’, the new biopic from Tate Taylor, director of ‘The Help’, then takes us backward through time on a decidedly non-sequential voyage through James Brown’s tumultuous life. Bouncing capriciously between Brown’s abusive childhood, wayward teen years, burgeoning music career and full-fledged superstardom, ‘Get On Up’ is initially like watching James Brown’s lifelong journey set to shuffle. For its first forty or so minutes, the film jumps around so much that it’s disorienting and somewhat difficult to obtain one’s bearings. We go from Brown as a young boy being menaced by his awful father (Lennie James from ‘The Walking Dead’) to Brown as an up-and-comer arguing with manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) over relinquishing a gig’s closing spotlight to some new band called The Rolling Stones to Brown as a teen being busted for stealing a suit. There are no clear thematic links between any of these events, so the movie playing hopscotch throughout the decades feels frustratingly random.
But after a point, ‘Get On Up’ stops jumbling the chronology and mercifully begins to unfold in a more linear fashion as Brown’s career starts to take off. Joining up with a gospel group fronted by Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), whom Brown meets while serving time in prison for stealing the aforementioned suit, Brown christens the band The Famous Flames and attempts to guide them on a path that will make the Flames actually famous. Receiving some valuable career advice from the slightly more accomplished Little Richard (Brandon Mychal Smith, a standout in his brief scenes), Brown cultivates a following for the band that snowballs into a recording contract with a major label. However, the label recognizes that Brown’s talent far outshines the talents of the other Flames, making no secret that they are all dispensable and relegating them to mere satellites orbiting Planet James Brown, a fact that sows the seeds for simmering resentment among the ranks.
‘Get On Up’ is a bit thin for a biopic, surprising considering its 138-minute running time. The film shows no apparent interest in dealing with Brown’s personal life. It introduces a pair of wives and a handful of children, all of whom the film promptly forgets about and never returns to. This is particularly surprising in the case of Brown’s second wife, Deidre “Dee-Dee” Jenkins (Jill Scott), whom the film depicts Brown abusing in a manner similar to what we saw his own father do at the beginning of the film before she simply vanishes without explanation. It also skimps on Brown’s relationship with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), who wound up being the stabilizing force in Brown’s young life, yet does not receive a substantial amount of screentime.
The only meaty bit of familial connection shown is in a heartbreaking scene where a grown Brown meets the mother who walked out on him all those years ago in his dressing room after a concert. While the woman (Viola Davis) claims love and pride toward a resistant Brown, it soon becomes clear that the reasons behind her sudden reemergence are not quite as pure as she wants him to think. Brown fighting back tears as he’s confronted with the mother who turned his back on him and now only seeks his attention for a handout is painful to witness and gives the film its most dramatically poignant scene.
The film’s chief investment resides in the relationships Brown maintains with Ben Bart and Bobby Byrd, the only members of Brown’s entourage that the film gives any significant focus to. The playful yet respectful bond between Brown and Ben is touching and gives Aykroyd (no stranger to the Brown mythos as evidenced by ‘The Blues Brothers’) his best role in ages. And the lifelong friendship Brown and Byrd share is the film’s true backbone. Bobby recognizes Brown as a force of nature and a genius, and is happy to accept his role as simply one of the ropes hanging off the Goodyear Blimp. While the other members of the band, like Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson), balk at playing second fiddle to the James Brown phenomenon, Bobby knows his place and is grateful for it. It’s only when he begins to feel Brown out for a possible solo record and is vehemently denied even the suggestion of it that the two men disband their partnership, striking out on separate paths that do not intersect again until many years later.
Yet despite its twisty narrative and stinginess with Brown’s personal life, ‘Get On Up’ is a rousing delight simply due to Boseman’s performance as Brown. He doesn’t play Brown so much as allow Brown’s ghost to use his body as a vessel. The actor captures the voice and physicality of Brown with eerie perfection. If this acting thing doesn’t go his way, he could make a fortune as a James Brown impersonator in Vegas or some such place. Boseman embodies the charisma and swagger of the man, the ferocity of his raw talent. It’s one of the most exuberant performances of the year, especially when married to the toe-tapping electricity of Brown’s catalog, which the film runs through almost continuously. ‘Get On Up’, entertaining as it is, perhaps isn’t Oscar-worthy as a film, but Boseman’s work here is canny enough to deserve serious consideration. Many actors could have played James Brown, but Boseman gives the Godfather a soul.
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