Get On Up, the new movie about the life of James Brown, begins the same way Walk The Line does: with its subject backstage, about to head out in front of an audience screaming his name. That subject, we’re assured, is going to be super famous, even if it may take him a while to get there. Basically, he’s worth sticking around for.
Of course, this is also the way Walk Hard, Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan’s brilliant spoof of musical biopics, starts (“Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays”), so it’s a little disheartening to see Get On Up open with the same musty set-up. As small a genre as the musical biopic is, it’s dominated by a formula into which it tends to jam the lives of its performers — humble beginnings, early slog, rise to fame, addiction, downfall, and redemption. As Brown, played by Chadwick Boseman, struts toward the stage while whispers of “James Brown don’t need no one” echo in his head, Get On Up seems set to follow that prescribed arc.
Then something wonderful happens. Rather than take the expected step back into Brown’s early days, Get On Up leaps to a hilarious, deadpan scene: It’s 1988 and a drug-addled, fiftysomething Brown arrives at an Atlanta strip mall he owns, and discovers someone from one of the other businesses has been using his bathroom. He marches into the neighboring storefront full of people to deliver a rambling lecture about when people choose to schedule their shits, a discussion his audience is less than enthused about, since he’s wielding a shotgun he accidentally discharges into the ceiling.
There will be no tidying up or solving of Mr. James Joseph Brown Jr., not in Get On Up, thank you very much. Writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and director Tate Taylor, whose last film was the considerably milder The Help, skip through the life of the Godfather of Soul with verve and shockingly little sentimentality, showing off the music legend’s incandescent talent and commitment to his craft as well as his dictatorial side and tendencies to abuse the people who loved him, including at least one of his wives. Rather than trudge through Brown’s biography from start to finish, Get On Up bounces from incident to incident in no particular order, creating a kaleidoscopic portrait of someone whose unstoppable drive to succeed was his best and worst asset.
Some of those incidents are as brief as a hallucination — like the moment from Brown’s brutally poor Georgia childhood (as a kid, he’s played by angel-faced twins Jamarion and Jordan Scott) in which he steals a pair of shoes off a dead body. Others unfold as self-contained anecdotes, like when Brown and his band are bumped from the closing spot in a show in 1964 by a group of young up-and-comers named the Rolling Stones. Brown’s mad, but he gets on stage anyway and proceeds to blow the house down, the Stones hovering off focus in the corner of the frame (Mick Jagger is one of Get On Up’s producers), pushing past them when he’s done while cheerily welcoming them to America.
Reality and time spin out and snap back into focus — Brown talks to the camera, at one point walking away from his manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), who doesn’t notice, in order to tell the audience his ideas about payola. Little James, lip bleeding from a fight organized between black children for the entertainment of wealthy whites at a party, envisions the staid band standing up to blast some funk. When Brown sings, and he does often, the camera whirls around him, pushing up into his face to catch the sweat glistening in the lights, then pulling back to take in the moves from the backup singers and the ecstatic dancing from the crowd.
Get On Up features some very fine supporting performances — like True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis as Brown’s faithful, long-suffering bandmate, collaborator, and friend Bobby Byrd, who has to stay in Brown’s shadow for most of his life. The women in Brown’s life would always take a backseat to his career, something he tells Byrd early on in the film, but Jill Scott makes an impression as Brown’s second wife DeeDee. As Brown’s Aunt Honey and mother Susie, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis, respectively, (both stars of Taylor’s The Help) each get one big scene they make count, emphasizing the formation of Brown’s belief in his own exceptional gifts as well as his implacable self-sufficiency.
But a movie like Get On Up can’t work without a firecracker lead performance, and Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42 last year, is radiant as Brown, capturing the man’s incredible energy on stage, his irrepressible personality, and his controlling impulses. James Brown was such an outsized character that portraying him requires doing something between acting and impersonation, and Boseman inhabits Brown while maintaining a sense of how often the man is playing himself, in all caps: JAMES BROWN, defying all conventional wisdom, weaving his own legend, and talking about himself in the third person.
It’s a star-making performance, providing people show up to see it — and they really should. Boseman and company may be lip-synching, but this is the joyous musical Jersey Boys wasn’t, a story of race and talent and friendship punctuated by songs in which the performers on stage do their damnedest to look like they’re singing their hearts out. The Hollywood biopic can’t hold James Brown, whose life unapologetically breaks the mold.