James Brown, in the twilight of his career, moves quietly and alone through dark backstage halls of a concert venue, following the roars of an unseen crowd ready for his performance.
It’s the opening to the new Brown biopic Get on Up, a scene we know because we’ve seen it before.
And it’s not because this moment takes a Spinal Tap turn, in which the Godfather of Soul gets lost somewhere between the dressing room and concert stage. Rather, it’s because the older Brown is really the catalyst in this biopic’s flashback narrative through a lifetime of pain and failure, love and success:
As a child, abandoned first by his mother and then abusive father, and raised in an aunt’s brothel, and as a young man, sentenced to prison for stealing a suit and running from police. An early musical career as a lead singer in a Gospel group, and later his determination to be a star and the problems that came once he achieved it. A troubled personal life and a temperament that always kept him alone, even when others were near.
Director Tate Taylor, known for 2011’s The Help, attempts another sprawling biography of history, social significance, and modern-day reflection.
Unlike The Help and its multiple main characters, a singularly focused film should be considerably less of a task for Taylor.
But this is a biopic on Brown, a deeply flawed, immensely talented entertainer whose life was only overshadowed by his ego.
It’s a huge story to get onscreen and Get on Up attempts to share most of it via a choppy collection of out-of-sequence moments in a movie often more jarring and confusing than illustrative.
This ambitious two-hour-plus story, credited to British brothers Jez Butterworth and John Henry Butterworth, includes brief references to spousal and drug abuse — apparently only minor problems in Brown’s life — and skips over much of the “hardest working man in show business’ ” work to get there.
By the end of Get on Up, you know the basics of his life, but with little details of any of it.
What unites these scattered pieces is the spectacular lead performance by the actor playing him, Chadwick Boseman.
oseman earned unanimous praise last year for his star-making turn as Jackie Robinson in 42, another flawed biopic elevated by Boseman. While Robinson and Brown are vitally important figures to our culture and history, their personalities and character traits are demonstrably different. Robinson was asked to bury his emotions as he experienced the racial torment in becoming the first player to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier, while Brown was never shy about sharing his thoughts and opinions with anyone.
That the same actor can triumph in both roles is a testament to Boseman’s wide-ranging skill and depth.
Boseman successfully carries the walk, talk, look, and feel of Brown offstage, but it’s his staggering transformation into the legendary Brown onstage that truly impresses as early Oscar bait. The moves, grace, charisma, swagger, and sex appeal that made Brown arguably the greatest live performer of the 20th century — Boseman channels it all, and lip-synchs convincingly throughout.
The actor is also supported by a superb cast:
Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, Brown’s longtime musical partner and as close as he has to a friend. Dan Aykroyd as Ben Bart, Brown’s first agent who would become a trusted business partner and father figure. Jill Scott as Brown’s wife, DeeDee, who lives the roller-coaster life of being Mrs. James Brown. Viola Davis and Lennie James as Brown’s flawed parents, and Octavia Spencer as Aunt Honey. And Craig Robinson as Maceo Parker, a disgruntled saxophonist in Brown’s backing band who later serves as the angry voice of all the musicians, tired of their boss’ boot-camp methods and authoritarian control.
Contact Kirk Baird firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.