Chadwick Boseman gives an absolutely phenomenal performance as the hardest working man in show business in the James Brown biopic, “Get On Up.” In Boseman, director Tate Taylor found a James Brown for the ages, so brilliant is Boseman’s portrayal.
Taylor and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth use interesting approaches to tell Brown’s story. In some instances, the film features a year and a song and puts the audience in that time frame. Or we listen to Brown talk about events and then go back in time to when he was a child. Other times Brown talks directly to the audience and then goes about his business. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much. Whatever the case, the film is never boring.
“Get On Up” wastes no time in showing the delusional, self-important side to Brown,when, in 1988, he pulls up to a strip mall that he owns and goes into a rage when he spots someone using a facility restroom in one of his buidings. And that’s just for openers. We then go back in time to Brown’s childhood and what a horrific one it was. His mother, Susie (Viola Davis), was an alcoholic, who was routinely abused by her husband and Brown’s father, Joe (Lennie James). When James was a very young child, Susie left the family, while James with his father who beat him regularly. The one good thing Joe did was to finally leave James with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). She ran a whore house, but she did look out for him to some extent, at the very least giving him a roof over his head, a bed in which to sleep and food to eat.
At 17 Brown was arrested for stealing a suit. In retrospect this might have been the best thing to happen to him. In prison, he met a gospel group and struck up a friendship with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis)…a friendship that lasted a lifetime and gave him the springboard to his recording career, beginning with the Famous Flames. Brown believed in his talent more than anything else and according to the film thought he was better than most. Although he treated them horribly, Brown did love musicians and music and as he found new beats and new ways to showcase himself, did his best to keep them on their toes. Although the film doesn’t show his warts in depth—in truth he could be a horrible, horrible human being—snippets of his temper, of wife beatings, and the manner he could cut people off if he felt the least bit slighted, are shown enough to give one a good idea of what the man was like, professionally behind the scenes and personally. A more than complicated man, we learn about his trips to Viet Nam to entertain the troops and his involvement in the Civil Rights movement.
The cast surrounding Chadwick Boseman is extraordinary. The twin brothers, Jamarion and Jordan Scott, portraying young James Brown are extra special. They are called upon to perform in some harrowing scenes and they are remarkable. Viola Davis doesn’t have a lot of scenes, but the ones in which she does appear are heart-breaking, especially when she approaches Brown at the Apollo Theater. She is just terrific. Lennie James as the abusive parent is also extremely good in portraying Joe’s seething as well as his overt anger. Nelsan Ellis does an exceptional job in his role as Brown’s put-upon friend. Dan Aykroyd is also very convincing as Brown’s long-time manage, Ben Bart. Most especially there is Brandon Smith as Little Richard. His performance is amazing and makes you a hope a Little Richard film will someday be in the works. His screen time is very limited, but the way he captures Little Richard in voice and action will have you almost leaping to your feet when his work is done. Adding strength and depth to these performances are Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott, Josh Hopkins and Craig Robinson.
But when all is said and done,“Get on Up” belongs to Chadwick Boseman. Subdued and controlled as Jackie Robinson in last year’s “42,” “Get On Up” asks Boseman to do the exact opposite and he delivers in spades and then some. Although he lip-synchs to most of Brown’s songs, the dancing and the emotion is all Boseman, and he just astounds. He makes you believe you are actually watching a James Brown performance, be it in his youth or in his older years. Interestingly enough, when you watch Boseman dance as Brown, you see how much Mick Jagger has emulated Brown’s moves over the years (something as one of the film’s producers he readily admits doing). And it’s much more than the singing and dancing…Boseman seemingly captures Brown’s soul.
A special shout-out must go to the hair, makeup and costume crew. Without going into parody, they have depicted Brown’s look perfectly.
James Brown had a long career and managed to stay relevant for most of it. “Get On Up” most definitely encapsulates most of Brown’s life and times. While the film might not be perfect, Chadwick Boseman is.