Film Review: Get On Up

Chadwick Boseman is sensational in this multi-faceted portrait of troubled, pioneering soul-music giant James Brown.

Like those feet that wouldn’t keep still, Get on Up, the biopic of soul-music legend James Brown, doesn’t stay in one place for very long. Director Tate Taylor’s follow-up to The Help is a mosaic-like portrait, jumping back and forth in time to show the hardships, traumas and inspirations that forged this mercurial, contentious, groundbreaking artist. And with Chadwick Boseman, who played another African-American cultural icon, Jackie Robinson, in 42, Taylor has found the ideal actor to embody “the Godfather of Soul” in all his intense, funky, charismatic glory.

Within minutes, you know that Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s screenplay isn’t about to traverse a fusty chronological path, as it leaps from 1988 to a scary plane ride in 1968 Vietnam to Brown’s dirt-poor childhood in Augusta, Georgia. We witness the violent altercation that prompts James’ mother (Viola Davis) to regretfully leave her husband and son; eventually, James comes to live with his firm but nurturing Aunt Honey (The Help Oscar winner Octavia Spencer). At 17, arrested and jailed for stealing a suit, James meets the man who will most profoundly change his life: Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the leader of a group called The Gospel Starlighters, who instantly recognizes James’ sizzling vocal talent and rhythmic innovation. In a dynamite sequence, James and his buddies watch Little Richard (a sly Brandon Smith) perform, then take over the bandstand during his break, cutting loose with Louis Jordan’s “Caledonia” and making their debut as the newly dubbed “Famous Flames.” At first indignant, Richard gives Brown advice that leads to his first radio airplay.

Get on Up efficiently charts the trajectory of Brown’s career: recording his first hit, “Please, Please, Please” (to the befuddlement of label exec Syd Nathan, played by Fred Melamed); his gutsy self-financing of a live recording at the Apollo Theatre; his pique over being replaced as the closing act of the legendary “T.A.M.I. Show” by those Brit upstarts, The Rolling Stones (whose Mick Jagger is among this film’s producers); a hilarious appearance amidst wholesome, toothy white extras at a ski lodge in the 1965 Frankie Avalon movie Beach Party; his shrewd business dealings that gave him greater independence and a bigger share of his concert proceeds; his key role in calming Boston after the assassination of Martin Luther King; his landmark performance at Paris’ Olympia Theatre in 1971. All the while, the film flashes back to devastating personal moments, like a sadistic boxing match between black boys for the delectation of Southern white aristocrats, and two very different reunions with James’ long-absent mother.

The movie doesn’t soft-pedal the more unsavory aspects of Brown’s personality, including his virtual slave-driving treatment of his band members, his violent temper and misogyny, his failure to pay back taxes, and the 1988 high-speed car chase that led to his imprisonment for three years. One big shortcoming of the script is its thin portrayal of Brown’s wives and lovers: Tika Sumpter as his backup singer Yvonne Fair makes a brief, striking impression, then disappears, while singer-actress Jill Scott as wife DeeDee is merely there to suffer (and seemingly enjoy) abuse. But Davis gets a powerful scene near the end as the hard-luck Susie Brown basks in the success of her son, who then soundly rejects her.

Boseman may lip-synch during the movie’s concert performances, but he’s got Brown’s slippery dance moves down pat, including those alarming splits. He also credibly handles the aging demands of the role, from wide-eyed teenager to the druggy later years, abetted by makeup designer Julie Hewett and her team. Especially when he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera, Boseman shows tremendous charm even while mining the complex mysteries of this often-disagreeable character. And speaking of charm, Nelsan Ellis, a fan favorite on HBO’s “True Blood,” is a sympathy magnet as Brown’s loyal and infinitely patient (to a point) friend and champion, Bobby Byrd.

Mark Ricker’s astute production design and Sharen Davis’ fun costume design are also major assets here, along with the artful lighting of cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt (The Help, The Prince of Tides, Angels in America). And any film that features the title song, “Say It Loud,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Cold Sweat,” “Super Bad” and “I Got the Feelin’” sure has a rubbery leg up on the competition. Get ready for a funky good time.

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