When a performer lives as large — and loud and proud — as James Brown, it might be asking too much to squeeze 73 years into a movie that’s just two hours and 18 minutes long. And rated PG-13.
But as he says in “Get On Up” from director Tate Taylor, “James Brown don’t tell no man his business. Don’t tell me when, where or for how long I can be funky.”
James Brown, who often talked about himself in the third person, was the “Godfather of Soul,” the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Soul Brother Number One,” “Mr. Dynamite” and “The Original Disco Man.”
'Get on Up' movie trailer
A chronicle of James Brown's rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history.
He revolutionized music. Shaped decades of soul, funk and rap music. Howled and yowled and wowed audiences around the world. Executed spins, slides, glides and splits, losing a reported seven pounds a night on stage and gaining a sheen of perspiration. Rocked three-piece suits in sapphire blue, furs, capes, gold-colored jumpsuits, pompadours and, in private, curlers.
And now he gets an energetic biopic from the director of “The Help” and a handful of producers including Mick Jagger, whose younger self is portrayed briefly on screen. Chadwick Boseman gives (another) star-making performance as James Brown, aging on screen from 16 to 63 in a way that’s far more convincing than Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys.”
Mr. Boseman, who was Jackie Robinson in “42” and a college linebacker in “Draft Day,” is five inches taller than Mr. Brown, thinner and doesn’t have his round face. But with swagger, a higher-pitched voice and Southern accent, fake teeth, a procession of wigs, excellent makeup and the ability to do the Mashed Potato and other dances while expertly lip-syncing and occasionally singing himself is terrific.
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Jill Scott, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis.
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations.
Expect, at least, a Golden Globe nomination and maybe even an Oscar nod but it’s a long awards season for film roles such as this.
Mr. Taylor, working with a screenplay by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (“Fair Game,” “Edge of Tomorrow”), rejects traditional chronological storytelling. He shuffles the deck, opening in 1988 with the notorious police chase that landed the soul singer in jail, then shifting gears to a harrowing plane ride to entertain infantrymen in Vietnam and then to his traumatic, dirt-poor childhood.
He traces his fateful introduction to fellow musician Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and the band members who acknowledged he was a genius but an often problematic, egotistical employer who liked to assess fines for lapses or rule breaking.
Viola Davis is James’ mother; Dan Aykroyd his manager and agent; Jill Scott his second wife, DeeDee; Craig Robinson, Maceo Parker, lead saxophonist in the early band The Famous Flames; and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, Aunt Honey. She’s a madam at a brothel who takes James in and predicts, “You special, boy. You got the spirit in you. One day, everybody gonna know your name.”
As is often the case in movies such as this, girlfriends, wives and children appear and disappear and a reference is made to tax problems and then dropped. A scene where the Rolling Stones are shown watching Mr. Brown from the wings of the T.A.M.I. (Teen Age Music International) Show in 1964 Santa Monica is a blend of fact and fiction.
Mr. Brown and The Famous Flames were, indeed, moved up to make way for the Brits who, in the movie, are shown watching from the wings as the African-Americans send the audience into a frenzy of screams, cheers, whistles and wild applause. “Welcome to America,” he tells Mick and the boys afterward, but the Stones frontman recently told The Wall Street Journal he was backstage, not stage right, and attributed the plucky placement and exchange to artistic license.
(It’s still a great movie moment and you can find the 18-minute T.A.M.I. entertainment explosion on YouTube.)
It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the little boy forced to try to lure soldiers with the line, “We got pretty girls and sweet whiskey,” and to be exploited in other ways. To its credit, “Get On Up” dramatizes Brown’s reported spousal abuse, drug use and the two-state auto chase that landed him in prison.
Much about James Brown, from his cameo in “The Blues Brothers” to his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, is not addressed. Probably not enough time, given the wealth of rich, robust musical numbers, from “Please, Please, Please” to “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” staged with vibrancy, electricity and passion.
Mr. Boseman raises the bar, the temperature and the talent in what otherwise might be an average musical biopic. He’s earned the right to not only feel good but very good.
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