The first time you see Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get on Up, it's in silhouette and you're sold. Not just the shape but the motion, striding toward the camera with confident intent to thrill, as the Godfather of Soul did to concert audiences for decades. The man meant business, and the actor playing him is open for it.
Then you see Boseman in the spotlight, and, yes, it's James Brown, at least the most reasonable facsimile an actor can craft. Boseman is electrifying, so much better than the movie around him, dancing in perpetual sweat on what must be greased soles. It isn't easy portraying "the hardest-working man in show business," but this young man (along with some deft makeup) brings the funk.
No other performance this year slapped a smile on my face so quickly and can bring it back anytime. If only director Tate Taylor (The Help) hadn't constructed a movie as mercurial as its subject. For all the talk in Get on Up about grooves, the movie has a difficult time finding one
Thankfully, Taylor avoids the straight chronology stiffness of too many musical biographies. Yet he goes too far in the other direction, shuffling events in a manner that, regardless of the film's chaptered structure, feels haphazard. There is no rhythm to the movie except Brown's music, which Tate wisely stages often and Boseman lip-synchs with convincing passion.
This is a role ripe for caricature; Brown was, in later years, a parody of himself. Boseman doesn't focus entirely on the broadest strokes of the persona — his processed hair, rasped voice and mumbled, powder-keg swagger — but on the dignity of someone who grew up poor and black in the Deep South, believing he was owed the excesses of celebrity. It's a point that could be made better in a less sanitized, R-rated version that Brown's life earned.
Taylor's movie is overly episodic, but a number of those episodes are marvelous, such as an appearance when Brown takes funky umbrage at opening for the Rolling Stones, a nice gag since Mick Jagger is a producer of this movie. Another well-crafted scene recreates the set of 1965's teen idol flick Ski Party, when Brown realizes that everything about the gig — his loud sweater, the audience's effort to fake enjoyment — is too white for comfort, a recurring theme in Get on Up. "Oh, hell no," Boseman says to the camera, a fourth-wall breakdown that works. "I'm at a honky hoedown."
Defiance of white expectations keeps Brown's motor running, starting with a warning from Little Richard (Brandon Smith) about "the white devil" — chiefly record executives — that could ruin a black performer's career. The suspicion sticks, with the exception of his longtime agent, Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd, a bit too SNL-ish with the sly fox routine). Brown's hubris, however, is color blind and demanding of respect: "You can bet your bottom dollar," he says, "every record you own been touched by me."
Brown's adult years are portrayed so vibrantly and vividly that flashbacks to his youth — i.e., when Boseman is off the screen — seem intrusive. The jumpy narrative doesn't do any favors for Viola Davis as Brown's deserting mother or Nelsan Ellis as Brown's sideman Bobby Byrd, the left-field crux of the movie's vibe-sapping finale. Get on Up is much better when it gets down.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.