Chadwick Boseman channels James Brown in explosively entertaining new biopic
Get On Up
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellas, Viola Davis and Dan Aykroyd
Directed by Tate Taylor
“When I hit that stage, people better be ready,” James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) says early in a scene from director Tate Taylor’s Get On Up, the explosively entertaining new movie about the Godfather of Soul. “Especially the white ones.”
Indeed—James Brown was something the likes of which the world had never seen in the early 1960s, a keg of black dynamite sizzling with unpredictability and danger: sexual energy, gospel fervor, hyperkinetic dance moves, combustive rhythms, and intense, screaming, searing vocals. As he made his way to the top, he rewrote the rules about could, and couldn’t, be done by black artists in a music business owned and controlled by white men.
Get On Up is a revelation, not only because it’s so well made, written and acted, but also because it shows—reveals—so much about its subject. Most viewers will know who Brown was, and will certainly know his hits—“I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. But the exceptionally sharp storytelling and direction take us inside, outside and all around Brown, across a span of nearly six decades, from his childhood of wrenching Alabama poverty and abuse, through his rocky adolescence and finally into adulthood.
And through it all, we see, hear and feel the rhythm, music and grooves that drove him forward. Taylor (a Southerner who also directed The Help) shows us an internal funk engine constantly churning, turning and burning—young Brown incurring the wrath of his father by tapping a stick on the edge of a table, unable to stop the beat inside him; seeing a dreamy, hallucinogenic vision of his step-and-groove future in the horns and drumbeat of a Dixieland jazz band; having a sweaty, stomping, out-of-body experience on the set of a cheesy, white-bread ’60s Frankie Avalon movie.
And Taylor skips around, putting the events in Brown’s life on shuffle instead of play mode, juxtaposing events from childhood with moments later that show how, and why, they connect, against a backdrop of politics, civil rights and Vietnam.
The movie also doesn’t shy from Brown’s darker side: He was a complicated, preening, strutting egomaniac who beat his wife, wielded guns, did drugs, served time in jail and berated and fined band members for the slightest infractions.
Portraying Brown as a teenager through his final years (he died in 2006), Chadwick Boseman (who played baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in 42) is electrifying in a tremendous performance that captures his walk, talk, mannerisms, stage moves and morphing looks over the decades.
The movie also features some stellar supporting performances from Viola Davis (as Brown’s mother), Octavia Spencer (as his aunt, who raised him), True Blood’s Nelsan Ellas (as his longtime right-hand band mate Bobby Byrd), and Dan Aykroyd (as Ben Bart, the talent agent who became his manager).
But this movie belongs to Boseman, and to Taylor—and to producers Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger (yes, Rolling Stone Mick Jagger), who persevered for eight years, even when this movie seemed un-makeable, because they believed in it. When you see it, you’ll believe, too. It’s a knockout. It feels good.
—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine