It is hard when you are tasked with the privilege of portraying a larger-than-life entertainer. But, Chadwick Boseman (‘42’) completely transforms himself into legendary soul singer James Brown in the motion picture, ‘Get on Up’ with his clipped cadence, pompadour hairdo, and swift dance steps.
The motion picture is based on the incredible life story of the ‘Godfather of Soul.’ It dares to give a fearless look inside the music, moves and moods of Brown, taking audiences on the journey from his impoverished childhood to his evolution into one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
Boseman is joined in the drama by the amazing talents of Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Craig Robinson, Octavia Spencer, Lennie James, Tika Sumpter and Jill Scott.
Of course, Boseman is in good hands guided by the four-time Academy Award®-nominated Director Tate Taylor (‘The Help’) along with Academy Award® winner Brian Grazer (‘A Beautiful Mind’, ‘8 Mile’) with Mick Jagger and Victoria Pearman (‘Shine a Light’) .
The screenplay written by Jez and John-Henry Butterowrth sheds light on his tragic childhood (abandoned by his parents and incarcerated at age seventeen) that influences his actions. Like so many who clawed their way out of poverty, James Brown’s life story mirrors that of other tragic entertainers whose early lives shaped their futures. Perhaps, it is this mistrust of individuals that instills in Brown that he can only rely on himself. It is a lesson learned that shapes his life and impacts how he interacts with others. For example, Brown is depicted as abusive to his band mates and the women in his life. His petty insecurities seem to be the catalyst that makes him ‘the hardest working man in show business.’ It is also this unmitigated pain that allows him to reinvent himself into a versatile showman who adapts with every era.
Unfortunately, the Butterworth’s screen play is also very distracting. It jumps from past to present to recent past in an effort to let the audience inside the mind of this genius of an entertainer. It is exceptionally irritating in the film when Boseman/James Brown would ‘break the 4th wall’ (look straight at the audience and talk). This concept diminishes the illusion that audience members are voyeurs looking through the window at a world where this story is taking place. It also weakens the character’s ability to portray his subject and lessens his performance.
Academy Award® winning actress Octavia Spencer (Aunt Honey) who portrays the surrogate mother to Brown skillfully uses her art to humanize the enterprising Madame when she encourages a young James (Jamiron and Jordan Scott) by assuring him that he will be somebody.
Academy Award® nominated actress Viola Davis as James Brown’s mother Susie delivers a heart-wrenching performance as the woman who turns her back on her only child in search of a better life for herself. Nothing is more tragic than when she explains to Brown, ‘That she never wanted to be a mother’ thereby affirming his belief that he is not worth loving.
Nelsan Ellis is Brown’s long-suffering friend and business partner, Bobby Byrd who supports Brown’s quest for fame (even after he is betrayed by him). Byrd who becomes an accomplished artist in his own right is credited with saving Brown from a criminal life. A chance meeting occurs when the gospel singing Bobby encounters James in prison. He invites him to live in his stable home with his parents and a life-long friendship is established.
The film suffers from trying to chronicle so many events in this remarkable showman’s life. Of course, this is the problem encountered by many writers whose subjects have lived extraordinary lives and influenced every style of singing. Quite naturally, one would like to tell all events in their lives. However, for the sake of a concise story it is not possible. ‘Get on Up’ is no exception. Perhaps, the movie would have fared better if it had focused on a specified number of years given Brown’s expansive career. Yet, that presents another problem, determining what years to focus on. As a result, we are left with a film that attempts to take on more than it is capable of delivering within 138 minutes.
If there is one standout in the film, it is the amazing soundtrack of Brown’s life work. The movie is infused with his soulful sounds, many of which were recorded live. The soundtrack is available on ITunes® and features songs such as ‘I Got You’ (I feel good), ‘Night Train’ (Live at the Apollo), ‘Try Me’ and ‘Please, Please, Please.’
‘Get on Up’ is an insightful and dramatic look into the life of the legendary singer, James Brown whose music still influences various genres today.
It is Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations. It opens nationwide in theaters August 1, 2014.