James Brown was no ordinary star, and GET ON UP, the film about him is no ordinary bio-pic. It is as kinetic and as kaleidoscopic as the radical new approach to music Brown introduced. Chadwick Boseman, star of 42, essays another real-life character and with the same intensity and passion that be brought to Jackie Robinson, but with the raw ferocity due to the hardest working man in show business who became the Godfather of Soul.
The narrative starts near the end and loops back to include the brutal childhood with unstable, violent parents, imprisonment, and the unexpected nurturing of a brothel owner who taught the young Mr. Brown the value of both a dollar and of hard work. Rather than scattershot or precious, the time-travel serves the story by presenting the multi-faceted musician as just that, with a measured psychological sub-text, and an incisive, existential super-text that demonstrates that at any given point in Mr. Browns life, he was uniquely, defiantly himself. All his selves, in fact, past, present and future. It also provides a tidy precis on the influences and expressions derived therefrom that made James Browns version of Funk like nothing before nor since.
Boseman tears up the screen, not just reproducing the James Brown moves on stage, but also catching the mind working tirelessly even when the body is at rest. The inner turmoil of relationships with others and with fame mirroring the turmoil of the times in which he lived, from Jim Crow through the 60s and beyond. Surrounded by a cast that is brilliant even in the smallest roles, Boseman evokes the man and the myth simultaneously, doing justice to both without indulging in melodrama or hagiography. This was a man who hit his women, emotionally punched his friends, and never understood the word no in any meaningful sense. Fueled by rage and ambition and an empty place left by the mother who walked out on him, this is a towering performance for the ages.
There is ample concert footage, but this is no concert film. The journey Mr. Brown (he preferred to be addressed that way) takes is told non-chronologically, but with an emotional truth that transcends such pedestrian storytelling. One moment taking the shoes from a lynched mans feet, the next explaining to his promoter (Dan Ackroyd), how he, Mr. Brown, will now be both the show and business from now on, making them both even richer. As happens often in the film, Boseman breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience about his plan, as Ackroyds character continues to explain why it wont work. At the end, they look at each other, each with a new sense of trust, that rarest of commodities in the music business, in each other. That device, as with the unconventional timeline, is neither stunt nor sloppy storytelling, but rather addes a further dimension the portrait of the artist who stands at a remove, sometimes ironic, sometimes vulnerable, from the immediate circumstances in which he finds himself.
Ackroyd is delightfully cunning, Octavia Spencer is tough love incarnate, and Nelsan Ellis as Mr. Byrd, the gospel singer who takes Mr. Brown out of prison and into the spotlight, is a revelation, the Salieri to Mr. Browns Mozart, but a Salieri who understands his place in the scheme of things. Viola Davis as Mr. Browns mother is breathtaking. In a few key scenes, her character anchors everything that is to come, reconciling the woman who abandoned her child and the woman who loves him more than life itself, a lost soul and an iron lady. Its another Oscar nomination for sure.
GET ON UP is as raucous as the life it depicts, and is as tight as the horn section Mr. Brown demanded. It understands that charisma like this, that makes dancing fools of bigots, and willing whipping boys and girls of devotes, deserves something as dazzling as the man himself to do him justice