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.