“Get On Up,” Tate Taylor’s new film biography of James Brown, aka the Godfather of Soul, is unexpectedly buoyant; it skims over a life as if tunefully improvising, touching just the right note here and there. The screenplay, written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, is a rarity in the biopic world: it’s not a chronological childhood-to-grave approach, but a more free-form structure in which scenes from Brown’s life are connected thematically. It’s as if you’re watching the notes getting filled in, in random order, on a sheet of music; ultimately, the song shines through.
Chadwick Boseman (who played Jackie Robinson in “42” last year) plays Brown, aging in the film from his late teens to his 70s. (As a child, he’s played — quietly and hauntingly — by twins Jamerion and Jordan Scott.) Though the singing voice we hear is Brown’s, the rest is a tour de force for Boseman, who transforms himself into a skinny, slippery dance machine, speaking in raspy lightning bolts of words, mesmerizing audiences at his concerts. At times, he speaks directly to the camera, commenting on his life; it’s a tricky convention that Boseman makes work through the honest intensity of his performance. For the most part, “Get On Up” skims over some of the more troubling elements of Brown’s later life — drug use and domestic violence are only briefly touched upon — and focuses on the joy of the music; for us, it’s also about the joy with which Boseman channels Brown.
Other than Nelsan Ellis, a strong presence throughout the film as Brown’s longtime friend and fellow musician Bobby Byrd, you wish that some of the supporting players had more to do; Octavia Spencer, in particular, is barely in the movie. As James’ mother, who abandoned him as a child, Viola Davis makes an astonishingly vivid impression despite having hardly any screen time (as she did in “Doubt”); one brief scene with the now-grown James is a two-person master class in acting. The film’s full of tiny moments that stay with you, from Brown’s explanation of his trademark pompadour hairstyle (“It’s rising up to the Lord!”), to a look exchanged between Brown and his ex-wife that contains an entire history in a few seconds, to a dreamlike gospel-singing church scene where little James first found his groove. The movie finds it, too.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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