James Brown had so many nicknames, it's no wonder that director Tate Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have trouble determining what to make of him in the new bio-pic Get on Up.
With his raspy, passionate delivery and volcanic energy, it's easy to see why hits such as "Cold Sweat" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" earned him the title of "Mr. Dynamite." His dance moves, which reduced the law of gravity to a polite suggestion, and his rhythmically complicated songs more than secured him the title of "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business." He was called "Soul Brother No. 1" because he took charge of his career and his promotional strategy and had become a symbol for the civil rights movement in the 1960s and '70s thanks to his song "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud."
He was also called several unprintable names because he was demanding to the point of tyrannical taskmaster, an abusive husband and committed some sadly public crimes.
Thankfully, leading man Chadwick Boseman, who was born to play Jackie Robinson in 42, does more than simply imitate Brown's distinctive delivery and footwork. He nails the Godfather of Soul's mannerisms but still manages to give a rich, nuanced performance that captures what Brown was like on and off stage.
The voice heard on the soundtrack is actually a combination of Brown and Boseman seamlessly blended to make the musical sequences more than simply lip-sync. Boseman's performance may not be as gratifying as catching the real thing (I saw Brown electrify a crowd in Kansas City, Mo., in the early '90s), but he certainly whets your appetite for Brown's actual performances.
Get on Up covers Brown from his birth to impoverished parents (Lennie James and Viola Davis) in rural Georgia up until his legal troubles in the late 1980s. Abandoned by his parents, he spent much of his youth leading soldiers on leave to a local brothel and went to prison for stealing a suit. As he demonstrated in The Help, Taylor has a feel for the South of Brown's youth and doesn't sugarcoat the injustices of the era.
He also wisely avoids lionizing Brown. As depicted in the film, Brown was oddly rude to his bandmate Bobby Byrd (a terrific Nelsan Ellis), who all but freed Brown from the 13-year sentence received for swiping the suit. Taylor also handles Brown's penchant for domestic abuse with the right blend of outrage and restraint.
As Get on Up demonstrates, Brown's life was so full of triumph and turmoil that Taylor and the Butterworths can be forgiven if they sometimes lose focus. Some of the most important moments in the singer's life are appropriately heartbreaking and thrilling. Others are thrown in as if the filmmakers were following a checklist instead of a narrative arc. The death of Brown's son is handled so arbitrarily that one could miss it during a bathroom break. Dan Aykroyd, who plays Universal Attractions founder Ben Bart, isn't given much to do except listen to Brown sympathetically.
Get on Up is also told out of chronological order with Brown's sobriquets displayed on the screen. Brown even talks to the camera explaining why he took some of the risks he did with his life and career. It seems like an admission that Brown's commanding presence was a little too big for even an IMAX screen.
MovieStyle on 08/01/2014
Print Headline: Get on Up