Biopics, particularly those of musicians and other performers, tend to gloss over the asshole half of most artistic geniuses. After all, who wants to hear about all their shortcomings when you could just hear the massive hits instead?
Get on Up depicts James Brown as a lot of things, but mostly, he's seen as fallible. The Godfather of Soul doesn't get off light here, which is fitting because he was a difficult artist early in his career, a fierce and shrewd businessman at his peak, and kind of a mess toward the end. But, there is also the other James Brown, probably the single best stage performer in rock 'n' roll history, a unique kind of savant who heard his songs the way trained musicians couldn't, and, of course, the hardest working man in show business.
The film opens with Brown (Chadwick Boseman) on the day of his second 1988 arrest, which followed a high-speed chase with police. We instantly see a puffy, incomprehensible, and drug-addled Brown, a far cry from the persona that dominates most of the film. But it's an important piece to show us, because director Tate Taylor (The Help) doesn't want you to think this is just another cherry-picked biography.
There are the traditional musical biopic touches—the broken childhood home, the rise from abject poverty to getting his big break, being on top of the world, losing his grip—but Taylor plays with the chronological structure quite a bit, so you're never very far removed from the vital, magnetic James Brown.
About that guy: You may have seen Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in last year's 42. He was really good in that, but he's an absolute sensation here. The moves, the voice, the mannerisms, and the intensity of Brown are about as far removed from balletic grace and composure of Jackie Robinson as you can get, and this might be the most dialed-in performance of the year so far.
Boseman not only avoids all the potential pitfalls in playing someone so famous and inimitable, he blows away any expectation you might have. He does some singing—rehearsals and the occasional studio recording—but Get on Up relies heavily on live performances and original concert recordings, like the classic James Brown Live at the Apollo album.
As a complete body of work, Get on Up needs some more help. While it's nice to see that Brown is depicted as someone far more complicated than a guy who sang "I Feel Good" in purple suits, Taylor may be overthinking the presentation a little too much. Jumping from the 1980s back to the 1930s then to the '60s and back and forth again doesn't really tie loose ends together and is actually a detriment in a couple of instances, when threads of the story remain untouched for 30 or 40 minutes before being picked up again. What he's trying to do (evidently) is show us how events from the past shaped Brown's future and how, no matter his age or level of success, Brown was always striving to shake his humble beginnings. A little bit of that goes a long way, though, especially when it takes time away from such a marvelous central performance.
The genre of musical biopics is about to become very crowded—Andre Benjamin from Outkast as Jimi Hendrix, Don Cheadle as Miles Davis, Amy Adams as Janis Joplin—and ultimately, they'll all come down to that lead actor. And for the moment, anyway, even heavyweights like Adams and Cheadle are playing catch-up to Chadwick Boseman.