Chadwick Boseman gives a thoroughly convincing performance
as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. That’s the main takeaway from this
scattershot biopic, which might be subtitled “Snapshots from the life of James
Brown.” Some of those snapshots are interesting enough, although they are told
in a needlessly nonlinear style…but they don’t provide a three-dimensional
portrait of the famously hard-working entertainer. As I left the theater, I
couldn’t help asking myself questions the film hadn’t bothered to answer.
He was born into poverty in Georgia. His loving mother left
when he was a child, and when his violent father was drafted he was parked with
the proprietress of the local whorehouse. He learned to be self-reliant early
on and found it difficult to trust anyone, on a personal or professional basis,
for the rest of his days. That’s about all we learn in a film that runs more
than two hours.
What really drove him? What was his attitude toward family?
What, ultimately, drove him over the edge and made him do crazy things? That’s
left for us to surmise.
In the meantime, we see Boseman evoke the vivid persona of
Brown both on-stage and off, with Brown’s voice on the musical soundtrack. The
illusion is remarkable, bolstered by the fact that we don’t have strong
associations with Boseman himself (who portrayed Jackie Robinson in last year’s
42). Nelsan Ellis, of True Blood, plays Brown’s longtime
friend and musical cohort, Bobby Byrd, but he too remains something of an
enigma—a man who puts up with his boss’ thoughtlessness and verbal abuse for
years until one day he doesn’t. Viola Davis registers in her few scenes as
Brown’s mother, but Octavia Spencer’s role as the Madam who helps raise young
James is a thankless cameo. (Presumably these talented women agreed to appear
in such small roles as a courtesy to filmmaker Tate Taylor, who directed them
in The Help. Another cast member of
that hit film, Allison Janney, also makes a brief appearance.) Other women who
figure in Brown’s life come and go without much notice.
If you’ve never seen the real James Brown, I suppose this
film might serve as an introduction, or a primer of sorts…but there is enough
footage of the real performer on film, easily accessible online, to question
the usefulness of a two-dimensional biography. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Jez
Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth to tackle this subject (they share story
credit with Steve Baigelman), and credit is due director Taylor for recreating
the look and feel of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. But Get On Up never succeeds in revealing the man behind a genuine
show-business phenomenon, and that’s too bad.