James Brown was a man who contained multitudes.
A tenacious fighter, also capable of fostering peace.
A Sex Machine, unafraid of showing his tender side.
A pioneering, peerless superstar whose life fell apart as he aged.
All these conflicting characteristics are accounted for in the new biopic Get On Up, directed by The Help’s Tate Taylor and starring 42’s Chadwick Boseman in an electrifying performance as the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business.
While Get On Up doesn’t reach the heights of its central performance — much like other actors (Joaquin Phoenix, Jamie Foxx) embodying musical legends before him, the magnetic Boseman should linger in Oscar voters’ minds when the nominations roll around — there are occasional glimpses of what might have been if the screenplay were on the same frequency as the film’s star.
Written by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Get On Up feels the need for a little narrative razzle-dazzle up front, hopscotching between Brown’s hardscrabble childhood in rural South Carolina, his elderly years and his formative days.
The frequent time-shifting settles down as the film progresses, but another trick — Brown directly addressing the audience — continues throughout. It’s an odd choice, one which is initially startling (and distracting) but gradually makes sense. A scene of Brown “stepping outside” of a performance on the set of a Frankie Avalon film gets an extra comic charge from breaking the fourth wall.
It’s as if Taylor, despite hewing to a narrative that faithfully includes all the standard biographical cliches, including lugubrious lines like “You got the spirit in you,” wants to shake up the often staid biopic genre.
He comes closest during the film’s best sequence, set in 1971 Paris, as Brown shifts from gritty R&B to cosmic funk. Capturing precisely why Brown is so revered, Get On Up cross-cuts across his life, deftly illustrating how everything before built to that moment in Europe.
A brilliantly conceived and executed scene — Boseman should rack up awards based on this sequence alone — it crackles with a sense of purpose not always evident elsewhere.
Boseman is riveting as Brown, evoking the man’s singular talents more than emulating them, and coming as close as anyone could to bringing the Godfather of Soul back to life. Boseman is nearly matched by the fiery Nelsan Ellis (best known as True Blood’s Lafayette), portraying Brown’s longtime collaborator Bobby Byrd, and Viola Davis, who is wrenching as Brown’s mother, Susie.
Brown was a complicated man who lived a colorful and occasionally controversial life, and Get On Up settles for showcasing his talents rather than making any attempt to understand why he used them as he did.