In the James Brown biopic GET ON UP, the soul and R&B trendsetter—exquisitely portrayed by Chadwick Boseman—informs an inquisitive reporter that there's not a single album on the journo's shelf that sounds like a James Brown record. He declares it matter-of-factly, with good reason. James Brown is to funk music what Mozart is to classical—they didn't invent their genres, but they elevated them to previously unheard heights.
Languishing in development hell since Brown's death, this film finally materialized with the help of Mick Jagger, who receives a producer credit. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) crafts an expansive overview of Brown's life, utilizing the non-linear timeline common to musician biopics, which disperses the musical performances throughout. The story arc is also familiar, a rags-to-riches-to-redemption saga that follows Brown from impoverished roots in racist Georgia to youth prison to stardom.
But familiarity doesn't make Brown's life any less remarkable. Born in a one-room wood shack, he was eventually abandoned by his prostitute mother and abusive father to be raised by an aunt (Octavia Spencer) who ran a brothel, where a young Brown buck danced to lure in GIs. But it was a rural church preacher whose pompadour and showmanship most influenced Brown's flashy stage presence.
Screenwriters Jaz and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow; Fair Game) don't shirk from linking Brown's childhood demons to his adult ones, which included drug and domestic abuse, legal woes and being a notorious taskmaster to his band—particularly long-suffering best friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis).
Brown's split personality is embodied in a scene where he and his second wife DeeDee (Jill Scott) stand on the front steps of their house dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, handing out gifts to the neighborhood children. Minutes later, Brown slaps DeeDee to the kitchen floor for her plunging neckline.
The film falls conspicuously short in connecting Brown's upbringing and his musical genius, seeming to attribute it to divine providence. The closest we get to pulling back the creative curtain is a rehearsal where Brown scoffs at the supposed discordance of "Cold Sweat" and equates every instrument with a source for rhythmic percussion—"a drum."
Brown's politics—from integrationist to black activist and back—are presented without much explication. The brilliant exception is a recreation of his cameo in the Frankie Avalon vehicle Ski Party, where Brown and the Famous Flames, clad in cheesy sweaters, perform "I Got You (I Feel Good)" for grinning, awkwardly grooving white actors. Mid-routine, Brown appears to grasp the racial dynamics of the scene, perhaps recalling when he and other African-American kids were blindfolded and forced to box for the amusement of white country clubbers in Augusta, Ga.
In a year's time, Boseman has brought two African-American icons to the silver screen (Jackie Robinson is the other). The actor, like Brown, was born in South Carolina. Still, imitating the entertainer's distinctive persona is difficult, not to mention the high risk of parody that any portrayal faces after Eddie Murphy's infamous Saturday Night Live impersonation.
Taylor wisely uses original James Brown masters for the vocals during the musical numbers. But not only does Boseman nail the iconic dance moves and clipped cadence, he channels the contradictions of Brown's soul—the ferocity of his performances but also his Southern-fried serenity; his egotistical cruelty but also his disarming charm and underestimated marketing acumen.
For all his character's bombast, Boseman particularly shows his acting mettle during quieter moments: the pained expression when Brown realizes that a surprise visit from his estranged mother (the great Viola Davis) has a monetary motive; the mix of pain and pride as he tries to earn back Bobby's friendship.
Get On Up occasionally pulls its punches, sometimes literally—Brown striking DeeDee takes place out of camera range. It's questionable whether one can paint a wholly honest portrait of Brown's life in a PG-13 movie. But buttressed by Boseman's dynamic performance, this is an informed celebration of Brown's music, and there's still nothing else that sounds like it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Time and space."