Just as James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, the new biography of his life often feels like the hardest working movie in show business, although it’s far less successful. Get On Up sometimes feels like a standard-issue “Behind the Music”-esque biopic, a la Ray or Walk the Line. But unlike those movies, which inspired the spot-on satire Walk Hard, Get On Up tries desperately to be as unique as Brown was, hopping from scene to scene, time period to time period, with very little care for the common vagaries of filmic storytelling. Bolstered by a charming lead performance by Chadwick Boseman, Get On Up is raucous and messy, but it’s at least compellingly messy.
Get On Up opens the way any James Brown story would: with Brown, circa 1988, high as a kite, toting a shotgun, and trying to figure out which intruder from a nearby business presentation snuck into his private bathroom to unload themselves. OK, it’s a daffy and admittedly delightful way to throw an audience off; at the very least, it’s one hell of a framing device. Soon, though, we’re jettisoned into Brown’s past, from his boyhood in Augusta, Georgia as the son of a prostitute (Viola Davis) and a violent and inveterate gambler (Lennie James); to the early band he founds with his friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis); to his stardom, partially fueled by an elderly manager (Dan Aykroyd) who can see the genius and selling power of this electrifying figure as well as how much money can be made in the process. Director Tate Taylor, of The Help, and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, however, don’t hold to a linear style. We start in 1988, go back to the Vietnam era, move to the late 1930s, then to the 40s, back to the 30s, and round and round and round in a dizzying and infrequently logical manner.
Backhanded compliment though it may be, at a certain point, the film’s disregard for basic storytelling conventions becomes so flagrant that it’s almost bold. (Sometimes, the associated lack of logic occurs within the same scene, as when Brown’s mother walks out on his father, who urges her to take her son too. She relents, only to have the father hold her at gunpoint, refusing to let Brown leave with her. The believable rage from both adult actors notwithstanding, this scene takes roughly 2 minutes, and is almost delirious in its head-spinning refusal to make sense.) Though the film is inconsistent in hitting the traditional beats, Get On Up is, by and large, pure hagiography. There are hints of Brown’s darker side, from the aforementioned drug use to potential spousal abuse to gleeful infidelities, but all too often, those on the sidelines exist to cheer him on, boost him up, and stoke the never-dying flames of his ego. It’s hard to argue that James Brown’s music wasn’t genius; this movie essentially argues that Brown’s music was all that mattered.
Boseman, fresh off playing another pop-culture icon of the 20th century, Jackie Robinson, in last year’s 42, is the chief reason why Get On Up is a good deal of fun in certain stretches. He’s appropriately energetic, light on his feet, and limber; he even makes the largely inexplicable parts where Brown breaks the fourth wall to address the audience work. Taylor (probably wisely) avoids having Boseman sing in place of Brown, however; instead, he lip-syncs through all of the Godfather of Soul’s big hits. He’s evenly matched by the lower-key Ellis as Brown’s longtime friend and confidant, Bobby, whose acknowledgement late in the film, that he was never meant to be the frontman of any group unlike Brown, is a surprisingly moving and honest moment. Although Davis and Octavia Spencer (both among a few actors in The Help who appear here) are top-billed, neither has enough screen time to make a solid impact, though Davis comes close with an emotionally climactic moment in the third act.
Still, this is, as a bass drum’s face announces in a 90s-era concert scene, the James Brown show and thus, the Chadwick Boseman show. Taylor’s direction as well as the camerawork comes alive only when James Brown is on stage, dancing and doing splits and rousing crowds to almost orgasmic cheers and applause. The script is so scattered, so giddily unwilling to tell a complete story of James Brown’s life, that it vacillates between being frustrating and oddly charming. (At one point, a band member brings up Brown’s problems with owing the government back taxes, a fact that’s never discussed again.) And yet, Get On Up kind of works, even when Brown’s not singing to the rafters. If nothing else, this movie proves that Chadwick Boseman has what it takes to be a star, effortlessly gliding from joy to egotistical fury as much as he glides across the stage to rowdy audience approval. The film’s as rowdy and messy as those crowds, but it’s never boring and unexpectedly surprising.