Get On Up gets down and dirty about the life, times and funky beats of James Brown.
As a window into his music and — yes — into the very soul of The Godfather of Soul, Get On Up does its job. It does it with some of the same electrical jolt the late performer used to provide during his legendary concerts. The movie is supercharged with vocals by Brown himself, even though he is played onscreen (and brilliantly) by actor Chadwick Boseman.
As a biopic, however, Get On Up is a helter-skelter mess. It careens wildly from being an impressionistic masterpiece to being a careless and conventional Hollywood drama to being a lurid melodrama. I prefer the impressionistic passages, even if the time lines jump crazily. I prefer when director Tate Taylor lets us feel the essence of Brown and does not spell it all out like we needed to follow a road map through a troubled life.
Taylor, best known for directing The Help and acting in Winter’s Bone, worked from a screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, two Englishmen who clearly love Brown’s music. They acknowledge in the story that Brown, who died at 73 on Christmas Day in 2006, was a towering figure in 20th century American music. He was a natural born genius who channelled the experiences of youth — including his exposure to revivalist preachers, gospel singers and rural bluesmen — into some of the greatest songs of the 1950s, ‘60s and Sex Machine ‘70s.
All that is referenced in some way in Taylor’s movie, although never chronologically. Good and bad elements are cheek-to-jowl, whether it is Brown’s tenderness or his reign of terror over wives, friends and band members. The drug abuse and regret is all here, too. So is the joy of creating music.
What is missing is either a coherent vision of the man or just the opposite. Get On Up might have been better if Taylor had not tried so hard to stuff a lifetime of turmoil and 52 years of performing into a 138-minute movie.
No one can challenge the core performance, however. Boseman, who played another American legend in 42, does another amazing turn that soars beyond mere mimicry. Just as he did with baseball player and civil rights superstar Jackie Robinson, Boseman turns James Brown into flesh-and-blood onscreen.
The physicality is uncanny, and not just for the mouth prosthetics that must have been needed to transform Boseman’s face into a replica of the strong-jawed Brown. Boseman also has Brown’s gait and his stage persona down. But the filmmakers were smart to use Brown’s original song vocals, with only fleeting bits of Boseman’s singing. Re-working something Satchmo once said of fellow cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and his horn playing, it should be said of James Brown that “ain’t none of them sing like him yet.” So don’t bother to try, not in a biopic.
Kudos also go to Canadian blues and jazz fan Dan Aykroyd, who plays Brown’s Jewish mentor Ben Bart, and Nelsan Ellis, who plays his long-suffering best friend and former member of The Famous Flames. When Brown flamed out, he left behind a legacy of genius and these men were part of it. Get On Up is at least honest.