Many intrepid writers have tried their hand at the unenviable task of capturing the complicated essence of the late James Brown. A fabulous showman, a canny businessman, and a martinet who bullied his musicians, Brown was also a wounded soul who managed to transcend a difficult upbringing in an America scarred by the blatant racism of the Jim Crow South.
Never easy to pigeon hole, Brown eventually became one of the rare black superstars to support Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
At the same time, he was the undisputed Godfather of Soul, a performer who understood that talent and celebrity can imbue a man with mesmeric power. He wasn’t just an entertainer: He was a force.
During the course of a long career, Brown expanded from the Chitlin’ Circuit to the mainstream. Like a wave that couldn’t be denied, he broke across the pop cultural shores of a nation that perhaps never knew quite what to make of him, but couldn’t help watching anyway.
Now comes Get On Up, an energy fueled big-screen biography that leaps around in time as frenetically as Brown moved on stage.
If you choose, you can find lots about which to quibble in the way director Tate Taylor (The Help) has structured the material and with some of the movie’s attempts to broach complicated subjects with sketchy shorthand references.
Mostly, though, you’d be wasting your time. Get On Up stands as a triumphant resurrection of Brown’s spirit, an accomplishment for which Chadwick Boseman justly can claim credit.
Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42, finds another role that’s physically and emotionally demanding. Mastering Brown’s trademark stage moves is challenge enough, but Boseman also had to plumb the depths of a man whose amazing story includes abandonment by his parents, growing up in a whore house, stints in jail and dazzling commercial success.
Throughout all of this, Boseman gives full vent to Brown’s unwavering capacity for self-assertion, a drive that manifested itself in music that created a primal groove. Brown’s rhythms seized the body and made it dance, a form of musical possession to be dealt with as best one could.
Sometimes, even Brown couldn’t keep up with himself. There’s a moment in Get on Up in which a needlessly jealous Brown hits his wife. A shaken Boseman faces the camera, revealing flickers of Brown’s self-awareness, as well as his fears of crumbling order and loss of control.
Of course, Boseman also captures Brown’s bravado, his defiance and the musical perfectionism that frequently tormented the musicians whom he mercilessly rehearsed.
At times Boseman speaks directly to the camera, taking charge of the story as he should. It’s a risky ploy, but it works, probably because it never lets us forget who’s in charge of the narrative.
Seldom has the term supporting cast been so apt. Every performance in the film defines itself in terms of the commanding center provided by Boseman. Craig Robinson appears as saxophonist Maceo Parker; Nelsan Ellis (of TV’s True Blood) plays Bobby Byrd, a Brown loyalist and back-up singer. Jill Scott portrays DeeDee, one of Brown’s wives.
Viola Davis isn’t in the picture much, but has a terrific scene as Brown’s mother. After a show at the fabled Apollo, she turns up for a meeting with the son she hasn’t seen in years. It’s as painful encounter as you’ll see in a movie this year, a star fighting against his own feelings for a woman who abandoned him and that woman, understanding what she’d done, trying to express pride in a lost child.
No point recounting Brown’s life here. Those who are familiar with his story probably will find areas where screenwriters Steven Baigelman and Jez Butterworth have taken liberties, but they’ve also sprinkled the movie with images that amplify Brown’s biography.
Examples: As a kid in the South, Brown removes a pair of stylish shoes from a lynched black man whose body still hangs from a tree. A still youthful Brown claims the stage with The Flames (his band at the time) at a club where Little Richard is headlining. And the movie is clear about the ways in which Brown made his manager (Dan Aykroyd) do his bidding.
Sometimes, Brown went too far: Early on, he goes off the deep end with a group of insurance trainees who have gathered in one of his buildings, toting a rifle and demanding to know which of them had the temerity to use his toilet — not a casual question for someone who understood the demeaning rigidities of segregation.
Taylor and company have no interest in canoizing Brown: They’ve tried to present him as a man who knew how to take and defend his turf, sometimes when it wasn’t even being threatened.
I don’t know what Brown would have thought of this movie: But it produces some of the same feelings that Brown’s performances generated: excitement and amazement — about Brown and also about Boseman: Both subject and actor seem to embody a force that comes from some unexplained and unreachable place only they can access.
The rest of us? We’re spectators in their worlds.