To play Dodgers hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in 42, Chadwick Boseman skillfully eased into the role of the contained, cautious outsider who historically crossed the color line in major-league baseball.
To play James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, in Get On Up, cautious just won’t cut it. No worries. Boseman tears into the role like a man possessed. You can’t take your eyes off him. Boseman’s got the moves, the pompadour, the funk and the swagger to play the abandoned, abused South Carolina kid who reinvented himself as a musical icon. It was Brown, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who helped heal a nation by leaping to the stage to sing, “Say it loud/I’m black and I’m proud.”
Brown, who died in 2006 at 73, had a big life that resists being crammed into one movie. Director Tate Taylor (The Help), working from a script by the British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, tries to do it anyway, jumping around in time and dropping in a slew of characters, including Brown’s mother (Viola Davis), aunt (Octavia Spencer), second wife DeeDee (Jill Scott), manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) and best friend Bobby Byrd (a terrific Nelsan Ellis).
It’s too much and too little. Though the film shows Brown’s temper and his faults as a control freak, it blinks hard when issues turn to jail time, guns, drugs, spousal abuse, and how his support of civil rights protests jibes with endorsements of Nixon and Reagan. Maybe Brown family input inspired the reticence. Maybe the Brown biopic Spike Lee envisioned making with Eddie Murphy would have cut deeper.
No matter. Get On Up is the Brown biopic we have. And when Boseman shows us Brown doing his thing onstage, the movie comes alive. Boseman mostly moves his lips to Brown’s vocals on classics such as “Please, Please, Please,” “Night Train,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Try Me,” but there’s no denying how the spirit moves him. And us.