This morning I was blown away by Chadwick Boseman, and you will be too when you see him in “Get On Up.” In case you don’t know, “Get On Up” is a movie chronicle of James Brown’s rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history. Boseman as Mr. James Brown gives the viewer a fearless look inside the music, moves and moods of Brown with ease.
The director tells the rags-to-riches story in an odd, nonlinear fashion with times when Boseman’s character addresses the camera and audience directly. Still, the film shares a similarity with biopics on Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. Both of those pioneering icons were haunted from a young age by the deaths of their brothers. Brown’s early trauma was being disowned by his parents as a boy in rural Georgia in the 1930s. But where Cash and Charles come off as tragic and sad figures in their films, the lifelong mantra of Soul Brother No. 1 was to “look out for yourself,” because no one else would.
No doubt, everyone (including myself) will be hyping the electrifying performance of Boseman. You may recall he played another African-American hero, Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42. He nails Brown’s rhythmic, funky rasp down pat, and his dance moves are outstanding. Maybe even Oscar worthy.
But if one is placing bets on Academy Awards night, the money could also be placed on Nelsan Ellis who gives an affecting, nuanced performance as Bobby Byrd, James Brown’s long-suffering but loyal bandmate and quasi-brother. Ellis was up for the lead role, but settled for the sideman character when Boseman got the job. Basically the same thing happened in real life between the two, when James Brown took over the Famous Flames and became the ruthless, unlikable boss of the band.
Where the film fails is in its fizzled, melodramatic ending. The problem is that Brown the man had no third act. Early in the film, Brown is shown upstaging the headlining Rolling Stones in a 1964 concert broadcast, the T.A.M.I. Show. Jagger and the Stones found out the hard way that nobody follows James Brown. As it turned out, not even James Brown himself.
Get yourself on up to this movie and don’t be surprised if you find yourself dancing in your seat, and as you leave the theater. This is the Godfather of Soul, and he would want you to feel the funk. Get On Up!