Boseman Catches Fire In Lively James Brown Biopic

A person can’t simply will him or herself to musical superstardom or rise to cultural prominence through sheer determination – unless that person is James Brown. At some point in his life, the Godfather of Soul-to-be decided not that he was going to be a star, but that he plainly, simply was one. Obviously, word ultimately made it out of Brown’s own mind, past his inner circle, and to the world at large, exploding him into the phenomenon that he largely remained until his death in 2006. Biopic “Get On Up” gets his patented brand of braggadocio across beautifully, hammering home the man’s sixth sense for all things musical.

Like its subject, Tate Taylor’s film thrashes about wildly but purposefully, jumping back and forth between Brown’s childhood and his rise to fame without any discernible chronology. We begin in 1988, a drunken, past-his-prime musical legend wielding a shotgun while quoting his own songs to no one in particular. It’s a compelling starting point for a film about an especially troubled famous person, and although we never get a clean look into his psyche, it’s a fascinating work, nonetheless.

Chadwick Boseman stars in his second biopic in as many years (he impressed as Jackie Robinson in Brian Helgeland’s “42”), but where that performance was poised and graceful, his James Brown is a freight train. It’s as manic as it should be, but far more nuanced than could be expected from a relative newcomer. Boseman outdoes Jamie Foxx’s 2004 Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles and then some, putting a 140 minute film on his back and consistently muscling it forward, musical biopic formula be damned.

It doesn’t hurt to have Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (both of Taylor’s “The Help”) on hand as James’ birth mother and eventual mother figure, respectively, but this is wholly Boseman’s show. Nearly every corner of Brown’s persona – the voice, the dancing, the smile, the ever-changing hair – is represented here without coming across as impersonation, and Taylor’s energetic direction matches the intensity of his star. When a cardigan-clad Brown takes notice of a suspiciously white TV audience, the combination of Boseman’s line reading and Taylor’s off-camera work turns a throwaway bit short on dialogue into something crisp and alive.

Moreover, writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (“Edge Of Tomorrow”) scare up some creative screen direction, cleverly depicting Brown’s musical vision through unique visual cues. When a young James Brown (played by twins Jordan and Jamarion Scott) finds himself on the wrong end of a boxing match, he mentally morphs a nearby jazz ensemble into his own personal pep band, inspiring himself to “Get On Up” to the strains of an as-yet-unwritten soul classic. It’s esoteric moments like these that set the film even further apart from its biopic brethren, tweaking the formula into something fresh

Where “Get On Up” falls short is in tackling Brown’s flaws, clearly limited by its PG-13 rating. Chief among the man’s shortcomings – poor treatment of his band members, latter-day drug addiction, and extensive spousal abuse. All are present, but briefly, with Brown showing almost immediate remorse for the pic’s single instance of wife beating. And it’s in these moments that the screenplay’s frequent breaking of the fourth wall feels especially misplaced. With Boseman frequently addressing the audience, it renders Brown’s demons perfunctory, a necessary evil in a story of a redemption that never fully comes.

Dan Aykroyd fills the film’s most expansive supporting role as Ben Bart, Brown’s long time agent, bringing his affable screen presence and not much else, while Nelsan Ellis (HBO’s “True Blood”) and Craig Robinson (NBC’s “The Office”) do good work as members of Brown’s band. But it’s newcomer Brandon Smith who does the most in Boseman’s shadow. Smith leaves a lasting impression in a bit part as R&B legend Little Richard, friend and rival to Brown, nearly equaling Boseman’s level of energy and proclivity for his part.

The film’s lack of narrative focus keeps it from being a conclusive take on its subject, but perhaps that’s the point. For all his extroverted fury both on and offstage, Brown was largely an enigma, marooned between a haunted past and an uncertain future. With a lead performance that positively crackles, “Get On Up” is certainly worthy of its subject and the dollars of music and film fans alike. As roundly entertaining as any biopic in recent memory.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: August 1, 2014
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Steve Baigelman, Jez Butterworth, John Butterworth, Tate Taylor
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Lennie James, Jill Scott, Dan Aykroyd
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, drug use, some strong language and violent situations)