In Get On Up, Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42, takes on the big persona of James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul,” “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” and number 7 on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Boseman successfully conveys a sense of Brown's legendary performances. His acting is solid as well — he does as much with Brown as the script allows.
The film is certainly interesting and I was impressed — hell, I was startled — that director Tate Taylor (The Help) and company dared to repeatedly show Brown in a negative light. Get On Up is possibly the first music biography I've ever seen where I liked the subject of the movie less when it was over than when it started.
Viewers are offered a choppy portrait of a great performer and a deeply flawed man. The James Brown we see does some good things — we watch him hand out money to children while dressed up as Santa — but mostly bad — later we see him hit his wife while still in his Santa suit.
The film opens in 1988 with Brown flipping out because his neighbors in an office park used the adjoining bathroom he considers to be his. With a gun in hand, he strides into their meeting, ranting about toilet etiquette to the terrified group. He ends up in a high speed car chase with the cops. Look, it's a whacked-out past-his-prime star in a “Yee-Haw!” scene straight out of Smokey and the Bandit!
From there the film goes non-linear, leaping around in time like Brown at the Apollo. There's Brown in the early years at some dive, stealing the show from Little Richard (Brandon Smith). Now he's in prison, singing through the glass to his best friend, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). Now he's a little boy with a negligent father (Lennie James) and a departing mother (Viola Davis), getting dumped with his aunt (Octavia Spence), a madam at a brothel.
After a while the unstuck in time business smooths out and the film begins to feel more like a traditional music bio, with flashbacks to suggest the origins of Brown's approach to music and his various misbehaviors. Brown periodically talks to the camera, but don't expect any major insights; the star of the show remains opaque.
The PG-13 movie uses shorthand to convey his actions: his drug problems are acknowledged by one shot of him sprinkling something on a joint, his physically abusive behavior is confined to the aforementioned Santa scene. What we do see is Brown battling with family, fellow musicians and Bobby Byrd. We get a sense of Byrd as a human being, but Brown remains more a force of nature than a person.
I'm not complaining about that – it's an intriguing choice made by the creative team. But some of the best scenes in the movie involve interactions between Brown and others. An argument over time signatures with Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) is illuminating. Brown's conversations with promoter Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) suggest a genuine relationship of trust.
Those hints of Brown in human form are tantalizing, but Get On Up is about an obsessive, tyrannical, abusive, self-absorbed holy terror who created a dazzling stage show packed with funk and soul. Boseman provides the moves, while every note of the music comes straight from the one and only James Brown.