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Movie review: Boseman's performance will make anyone 'Get On Up'

A biopic is only as good as the actor playing the lead character. And when you have a person with a towering personality and force of will, portraying such a person provides double challenges. Think Jamie Foxx in Ray or Ben Kingsley in Ghandi.

Chadwick Boseman, center, stars as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
Chadwick Boseman, center, stars as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
Used with permission of Universal

Now fans can think Chadwick Boseman, an actor who is becoming an expert in this particular sub-genre after previously playing Jackie Robinson in 42.

And now Boseman stars as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in Get On Up in a performance in which Brown must’ve reached down from heaven and touched Boseman on the forehead and told the young man to bring forth the funk. It opens Friday (Aug. 1).

Audiences will lose themselves so much in Brown’s story and therefore Boseman’s performance that they will forget they’re watching a flick and may find themselves to lift their derriere’s from their seats. Blame it on Brown’s music. Blame it on Boseman’s performance. Hell, blame it on the boogie.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because Get On Up, as directed by Tate Taylor, looks to paint more of a psychological portrait of a complicated man who overcame odds and situations that would drive many to madness and he succeeds.

Parental abandonment. Jail. The IRS. Mistrust of white America. Drug addiction. Death. It’s a tapestry of sadness, but through it all Brown survived in persevered.

Taylor (The Help) takes an unconventional route to telling Brown’s story jumping backward and forward attempting to complete a portray of a man who was far from complete himself.

If anything Brown, as portrayed, was, like many of us, in a state of constant evolution – mentally, emotionally and intellectually. Tate wants us to understand why a man with so much talent beat his wives, found himself battling the IRS and eventually turned to drugs.

Through it all, he uses powerful moments in Brown’s career from the recording of one of music history’s seminal albums, James Brown Live at the Apollo, to a performance at the Boston Garden the night after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to the parting of the ways with a key collaborator.

Through it all we’re supposed express empathy for this man. It’s a risk showing Brown warts and all, but ultimately it pays off because Boseman runs with it and gets us to those gut wrenching, sometimes sickening moments. It’s one thing to get the emotional aspects James Brown’s character down, but the ability to shuffle, stutter step and spin while moving into a split with the greatest of ease requires serious effort of its own. This young man is positioning himself to be the next great actor.

With such a complete performance, the empathy comes naturally, but Taylor’s method to get there sometimes leads to confusion regarding place in time. It can be grating, but it’s an inconvenience, not a movie killer.

A supporting cast that features a fantastic turn from Dan Akyrod as Brown’s longtime business manager and others from Viola Davis as Brown’s mother and Nelsan Ellis as his best friend Bobby Byrd, helps to mitigate that.

However, make no mistake about it. Boseman’s powerhouse performance is what lifts Get On Up from the ranks of pedestrian biopics.

Movie: Get On Up
Director: Tate Taylor
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Dan Akroyd, Nelsan Ellis
Studio: Universal
Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations
Running time: 138 minutes
George’s rating: 3.5-of-5 stars
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com