Rising star Chadwick Boseman knocked it out of the park as Jackie Robinson in last year’s “42.” He now electrifies the screen with an uncanny embodiment of James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul,” in the musical biopic “Get on Up.” Brown rose from the cruelest depths of poverty to become a legendary recording artist and a highly innovative and influential musical genius. He was also a volatile personality who wreaked havoc on those closest to him and found trouble with the law. His story is told in a movie that’s as funky as his life.
That funky filmmaking almost kills it right out of the gate. We are first introduced to Brown in 1988 Atlanta, Georgia as a green velour tracksuit wearing, rifle toting, and seemingly stoned nut job berating business people for using his bathroom in a strip mall he owns. We’re not sure whether to laugh, be appalled, or have pity during this bizarre spectacle. We then jump to a dicey airplane landing before playing to the troops in 1960’s Vietnam. That suddenly cuts to Brown as an impoverished southern boy in 1939.
A few quick back and forth bounces later, the movie finally settles into a linear narrative beginning with Brown’s abusive and worldly upbringing. Jamarion and Jordan Scott superbly portray him as literally coming from the school of hard knocks, beaten by his father (Lennie James) and as part of a blindfolded, one-armed punching exhibition for the amusement of rich white people. His mother (Viola Davis) abandons him and his father eventually leaves him with a brothel madam (Octavia Spencer). Teenaged imprisonment for petty theft leads him to a new family and some gospel singing that starts his path to stardom.
“Get on Up” would be an even better film if it simply trusted its story and its star to immediately captivate us without all the erratic stylistic trickery. In addition to the time jumping storytelling, Brown also unexpectedly, unnecessarily, and awkwardly talks directly to the camera at times. Fortunately there is a compelling story here told by an outstanding cast that also includes Dan Aykroyd as Ben Bart, Brown’s sympathetic agent and father figure. Their relationship and its seeming importance to Brown should have been more closely explored.
But the bottom line is that this is Chadwick Boseman’s movie, and like his real-life character, he dominates it. He smolders with creative and personal frustration and rage. He hurts with the pain of a tormented little boy trapped inside a man forced to grow up too hard and too fast. He struggles with imparting his singular genius to the world. And his dance moves and physical manifestation of the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business" are off the charts. That alone makes it one the year’s best.