Published Jul 31, 2014Soul Brother No. 1. Mr. Dynamite. The Godfather of Soul. Legendary performer James Brown certainly was known by a host of different nicknames throughout his career, but did anyone ever truly get to know the man? While the possibility may sound like it would only make the task more difficult for a biopic like Get On Up, this actually paves the way for an unflinching account of a dirt-poor kid's single-minded pursuit of success, brought to vibrant life in an electric performance by Chadwick Boseman.
Jumping freely around to different periods of Brown's life in a welcome departure from typical genre fare, the film begins with the bizarre scene of Brown wielding a gun at a store he owns in 1988 when no one fesses up to having dropped a deuce in the bathroom. His troubled childhood is pieced together in glimpses, from a humble upbringing in a Georgia shack to being abandoned by his parents and then eventually saved from prison by a musician named Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) who recognizes Brown's vocal talent.
When Universal Attractions agent Ben Bart (Dan Akroyd) entices him with a hefty payday, Brown has few qualms about letting Byrd and the rest of his Famous Flames band take a backseat to his own unquestionable star appeal. Levelling members with fines at even the slightest hint of insubordination, Brown continues to solidify his own legend by using his signature flair and funky dance moves to ignite stages and help advance the civil rights movement.
Narrated directly into the camera at times by Brown himself, this isn't exactly a glorifying portrayal of the singer in how it shines a light on all of his egomaniacal and abusive ways. There's a startling moment, after Brown has smacked his wife silly just for allowing herself to be ogled at a Christmas celebration, when Brown looks sheepishly into the camera as if he's sorry we had to see that.
Following his breakout turn in last year's 42, Boseman shows a stunning range within just the two roles. Where his Jackie Robinson was a study in stoicism amidst prejudice, here he is tasked with embodying the unparalleled magnetism of an icon, and proves every bit as up to the task. In replicating the raw energy of Brown's live performances and his unmistakable (and sometimes nearly unintelligible) manner of speaking, Boseman captures the man's essence in painstaking detail.
Reunited with a handful of the actors from his last film, The Help, director Tate Taylor works from a script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (who have a had a pretty good summer after also co-writing Edge of Tomorrow). It may strain a little too hard for answers and closure by the end, but the film leaves room for plenty of humour and probes intriguingly into the causes and costs of ruthless ambition in a way that, much like Brown himself, feels surprisingly fresh and alive.