Starring Chadwick Boseman. Rated PG.
Any take on the Hardest Working Man in Show Business is going to be labour-intensive, and Get On Up (that title is the only thing lazy about the movie) certainly works up a cold sweat. What’s amazing, given the challenge of representing James Brown, one of the most familiar icons of the 20th century, is how much it gets stunningly right.
Most crucial was the casting of southern-born Chadwick Boseman, who previously tackled baseball’s Jackie Robinson in 42. Boseman perfectly captures Brown’s cocky persona and gravelly voice. Good thing director Tate Taylor (who led some of this cast in The Help) stuck with the Godfather of Soul’s own vocals, except where Boseman extemporizes casually while playing Brown from 1949 to 1993.
Shot in Mississippi, the two-hour-plus film begins in 1988, with the PCP-fuelled incident that landed him in jail for three years, and then jumps back to his harsh Georgia upbringing with a brutal, alcoholic father (English actor Lennie James) and prostitute mother (Viola Davis, stunning in a later sequence at the Apollo). Dan Aykroyd plays Ben Bart, the King Records promoter who became Brown’s avuncular manager, Craig Robinson is funky hornman Maceo Parker, and Jill Scott is the most prominent of his many romantic partners. Due to ongoing litigation, as well as this sex machine’s peculiar psychology, his women and various offspring get short shrift. Brown’s closest relationship here is really with fellow Flame Bobby Byrd, played with great sensitivity by True Blood’s Nelson Ellas.
The script by U.K. brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth conflates many events in Brown’s life, but is relatively free of anachronisms—unless you’re bothered by seeing one of the Famous Flames playing a Fender Telecaster several years before they were in mass production.
This isn’t the place to find broader musical or social context, although there are quick nods to influences like Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris, and the tale manages to convey much about Brown’s creative process, as well as his relentless work ethic. Little Richard gets a remarkable sequence, in the salacious person of young TV veteran Brandon Smith. The only reference to the British Invasion comes at the expense of the Rolling Stones, who famously suffered from following Soul Brother Number One on The T.A.M.I. Show. (Mick Jagger is one of the film’s main producers.)
Fortunately, Get On Up doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, even while touching on the performer’s many extravagant hairstyles over the years and containing many complete songs. So it’s weird that the tale is larded up with repetitive flashbacks, pointless visual gimmicks, and dumb fantasy sequences. Perhaps the 10 percent that’s off just about fits the singer’s proportion of insecurity versus killer confidence. But when the film ends a cappella, with James Brown’s isolated vocal from the early ballad “Try Me”, it feels so real you could cry.