'Get On Up': Trying to capture the elusive Godfather of Soul
On the list of next-to-impossible acting tasks, bringing James Brown back to life would have to be near the top.
In director Tate Taylor's musical biopic Get On Up, Chadwick Boseman, like Brown, a South Carolina native, tries manfully to become the Godfather of Soul on screen.
To give credit where due, the 32-year-old actor, who played Jackie Robinson, another African American icon of inestimable cultural impact, in 42, is mightily impressive in his efforts to inhabit Mr. Dynamite.
As superb as Boseman is - moving with athletic grace, doing splits with hair curled in a sky-high pompadour, approximating Brown's rapid-fire, guttural speaking voice without descending to Eddie Murphy SNL parody - he's never quite good enough to convince you you're watching the Hardest Working Man in Show Business up on screen.
Then again, how could he be? The rhythmic power of Brown's music - kept alive by acolytes from Prince to Pharrell Williams, as well as countless hip-hop samples - was delivered with an electrifying physicality and monomaniacal force of will that is, quite literally, inimitable.
Get On Up - whose coproducer Mick Jagger recently admitted, "I copied all [Brown's] moves" - fully understands that.
Along with Brown's relationship with first lieutenant Bobby Byrd, the story makes its primary subject Brown's superhuman drive to succeed and leave behind a brutal childhood in the racist South. He battled extreme poverty and was abandoned by both parents before being raised in his aunt's brothel in Augusta, Ga.
Taylor, who helmed The Help, and screenwriters John-Henry and Jez Butterworth employ a choppy, time-jumping narrative structure.
In a crucial scene set backstage on opening night during his career-making stand at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1962, Soul Brother No. 1 tells it like it is: "I'm James Brown. James Brown don't need no one. James Brown don't need nothing." Or as the preadolescent Brown puts it in one of several slightly jarring segments in which the camera is directly addressed, a la Kevin Spacey in House of Cards: "I paid the cost to be the boss."
The movie is never as exciting as watching YouTube clips of Brown performing in his prime. (Start with the videos from 1964's The T.A.M.I. Show, in which Brown upstaged the Rolling Stones, dramatized in Get On Up.)
But that doesn't mean Get On Up is not a well-acted entertainment that's highly respectful of the story it has to tell. It's disjointed but fun to watch.
The cast, including Philadelphia music makers Jill Scott (as Brown's second wife, Deirdre) and the Roots' Tariq Trotter (as sideman Pee Wee Ellis), as well as Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Dan Aykroyd, and Nelsan Ellis (a standout as the infinitely patient and forgiving Byrd), is solid top to bottom.
Scott's role, though, is seriously underwritten. She's introduced as a cheering superfan and romantic rival of a lustful backup singer. But that plot line never develops. The next thing we know, she's Brown's wife, and victim of his physical abuse.
The movie also employs hackneyed music-bio devices, like the clueless journalist asking awkward press-conference questions of the rising superstar. Such sins are largely forgiven, though, as the rise and fall of Brown, who died on Christmas Day 2006, takes us through colorful costume changes, and a parade of hits - "Please, Please, Please," "Cold Sweat," "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" - that all sound great.
That's because, although Boseman does a small portion of the singing, the rights to Brown's music have been secured. The actual recordings that are the Rosetta Stones of Funk, the building blocks of hip-hop, are heard in the movie. So even if you're not convinced you're watching James Brown up on screen, you're hearing him.