“Get on Up” is a movie of uncompromising soul, unadulterated funk and unalloyed joy.
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 Business.”
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. Other moments betray guilt — a “Yeah, I know I’m misusing my band” or abusing his wife.
The thrill of Boseman’s performance is that he never lets this damaged, very human soul lose our interest or empathy. The guts of the performance are contained in his re-creation 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 works.
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 (including Nelsan Ellis of HBO’s “True Blood” and Craig Robinson) is quaking in fear. James Brown doesn’t fear death, or the Viet Cong.
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 and 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 and nurturing, abused and co-dependent. Ellis is wonderfully sympathetic as Bobby Byrd, the long-suffering singer, on-stage 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 such as 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 together.
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 persuades his then-new group, The Famous Flames, to leap on stage 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 (as Tina Turner in “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.