Dazzling, witty and emotional, this warts-and-all musical biography of James
Brown rides on the able shoulders of Chadwick Boseman. It turns out that his
terrific if saintly spin on Jackie Robinson in “42” was just a warm up act.
On first glance, Boseman suggests little of the pugnacious fireplug
“Godfather of Soul.” He’s too tall. He’s better looking. But Boseman juts his
jaw into a fearsome underbite and utterly masters the spins, splits and sweaty
stagecraft of Brown. He becomes, for two hours, “The Hardest Working Man in Show
The director of “The Help” and screenwriters with “Edge of Tomorrow”
experience deliver a film both reverential and self-aware. Boseman, as Brown,
turns to the camera, sometimes narrating Brown’s business or music ethos in that
Third Person way of his, sometimes winking, sometimes leery-eyed with mistrust.
Every now and then, he turns to the camera in pain, and other moments betray
guilt, a “Yeah, I know I’m misusing my band” or “abusing my wife.”
The thrill of Boseman’s performance is that he never lets this damaged, very
human soul, lose our interest of empathy. The guts of the performance are
contained in his recreation of Brown’s hoarse, Southern-fried slur of a speaking
voice. It’s so thick you can’t make out everything he says or sings. But that is
exactly the way Brown was. And we still understand him and feel his pain.
Tate Taylor’s film frames Brown’s life within the day, in 1988, in which he
hit bottom. Stoned, barely coherent and armed, he terrorizes a group of white
folks renting a Georgia meeting room owned by James Brown Enterprises. He went
to prison for that, but it’s a hilarious mishap played for farce here, and it
In a positively giddy first few minutes, we get a handle on the film’s flip
back and forth through his story format, beginning with an airplane ride, with
the band, into a combat zone in 1968 Vietnam. The band (Nelsan Ellis of HBO’s
“True Blood,” and Craig Robinson are in it) are quaking in fear. James Brown
doesn’t fear death, or the Viet Cong.
“They try to KILL James Brown today!”
After the life he’s led, the trials he’s faced, a little flak hitting his
plane on a USO tour was nothing. “Get On Up” proceeds to show us those trials,
the abusive father, the adoring mother (Viola Davis) who abandoned him, the
racist Georgia culture he grew up in. Chapters — “1949, Music Box,” “1964, The
Famous Flames” — capture singular moments in his story.
He calmed Boston (among other cities) by performing just after Martin Luther
King Jr.’s 1968 assassination. He insisted that everyone call him “Mr. Brown,”
and most did, long before “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” became an
anthem. He demanded respect and outfoxed an ingrained, corrupt and racist music
business run by men he called “White Devils,” by promoting his own shows,
financing his own breakthrough LP (1963’s “Live at the Apollo”).
James Brown fan Dan Aykroyd must have been in hog heaven, playing Brown’s
compliant manager, Ben “Pops” Bart. Davis is stunning in just a few scenes,
playing a mother who was both victim and victimizer, both sexual (Lennie James
is perfectly scary as her husband) and nurturing, abused and co-dependent. Ellis
is wonderfully sympathetic as Bobby Byrd, the long-suffering singer, onstage
foil and right arm to Brown for decades. “Mr. Brown” would fine his band and
other subordinates for all manner of violations of his codes of professionalism,
which gets under the skin of pros like Maceo Parker (Robinson).
Jill Scott is plus-sized sexy as DeeDee, the wife he seduced from stage
(while already married), then married and abused during their long lives
But “Get On Up” is Boseman’s tour de force. He’s perfect in concert scenes,
where his mastery of Brown-the-performer is spot on (he lip syncs), hilariously
playful as he convinces his then-new group, The Famous Flames, to leap onstage
and take over the instruments that Little Richard (Brandon Smith, electrifying
in his own right) and his band have left there on a break between sets.
Taylor uses time-lapse photography to capture the passing years, skipping
between the 40s, when young James was raised by Aunt Honey (Oscar winner Octavia
Spencer) in a brothel, to the ’70s, when Brown rode out disco to become the
“Godfather of Soul.”
Artistically, “Get on Up” rivals “Walk the Line,” with a lead performance on
a par with the career-making turns of Angela Bassett (“What’s Love Got to Do
With It?”) and Jamie Foxx (“Ray”). With this wonder of the summer, Boseman and
Taylor deliver a piece of American cultural history every bit as important as
the Jackie Robinson story, a story told with heart, humor, funk and soul.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott, Nelsan
Ellis, Dan Aykroyd
Credits: Written and directed by Tate Taylor, written by Jez Butterworth,
John Henry Butterworth and Steven Baigelman. A Universal release.
Running time: 2:17