James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul” and a key figures in the popularization of soul, funk and R&B, was by all accounts a very difficult and complex man. So the movie based on his life, “Get on Up,” is equally complicated.
The biopic is headlined by Chadwick Boseman’s uncanny impression of the great entertainer. While not looking much like Brown, Boseman has nailed his strut, hairdos and vocal adventurism. And one of the producers is none other than Mick Jagger so you know this insider look at a famous frontman by another one rings with authenticity.
It’s directed by Tate Taylor, the white Southerner who made the Oscar-nominated “The Help,” a film that felt fraudulent with every punch pulled but, clearly, I’m in the minority on that count. To give him credit here, Taylor is trying to shake up biopic conventionality by taking a new tact in exploring a complicated and enigmatic man.
English brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, working from a story by themselves and Steven Baigelman, opt to time-travel within their protagonist’s life. Scenes don’t unfold chronologically but rather thematically and impressionistically.
Nor do they or Taylor find any inroad into the psyche of Mr. Brown, as he liked to be called. For that matter, it’s good they didn’t go the pop psychology route, making sure you “get” why the man behaved this way or that. The film just views behavior in nonjudgmental, even-handed manner.
The film hops about in time beginning with Brown in a drug-addled, gun-wielding meltdown in the ‘90s, flashing back to 1933’s Barnwell, South Carolina, then to a wild concert tour during the Vietnam war and on to the 1956 release of “Please, Please, Please,”`1963’s T.A.M.I. Show and a 1968 Boston Garden concert following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The result is a mixed bag. No movie, no matter how crammed with incidents, could begin to capture all facets of this man’s event-filled life. Born into dire poverty in rural Georgia during the Depression, Brown transcended every limitation placed on him to create a unique persona in popular music with his electrifying performances and vocal stylings.
Indeed many of the film’s best moments find him in recording studios, trying to get very good musicians to capture what he’s hearing in his head. These scenes deconstruct the genius rather than simplistically explain it.
From a youth steeped in abuse, neglect, abandonment and prison, little wonder that as an adult James Brown was, for all his charisma, a feared and often abusive personality in his own right.
The movie gets an awful lot of this on screen, but Taylor takes a huge risk in his own stylistic approach to his subject by letting Brown narrate his own story, not unlike Frankie Valli and his band did in the recent “The Jersey Boys.”
Boseman, who last year portrayed another African-American icon, Jackie Robinson in “42,” frequently breaks the “fourth wall” to speak directly to the audience. Risky indeed because the format keeps pulling you out of the movie.
You observe but don’t ever get involved in Brown’s story. Typical example: Out of nowhere Brown announces he’s going to get married. To whom? You’ve never even seen her before.
Soon enough he’s eying another woman (Jill Scott) while onstage during a concert. Whoops, now she’s wife number two but you never got to know wife number one.
This may reflect Brown’s own attitude toward women as disposable objects. With all the women in his early life involved in prostitution that’s perhaps understandable. But this nearly all-male collection of filmmakers might have chosen a more enlightened path in portraying the film’s women including an unfortunate cameo by Allison Janney as a bigoted white.
Boseman spent a lot of time studying old film and tape of James Brown so he’s got his signature strut and dance moves down pat. He also perfectly mimics the protagonist’s Southern-inflected slur rendering a good chunk of the dialogue unintelligible for at least non-Southerners.
But as the movie has him dashing here and there, there’s never a moment when you might contemplate the movie’s subject at rest. The man surely must have flopped down in a chair now and then. After a long recording session perhaps?
So the view here is impressionistic. You get only a sense of his fleeting relationship with his mother (Viola Davis), a woman seemingly of as many contradictions as her son; that second wife; his long-suffering fellow musician Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis); and his longtime manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd, an overly mannered performance which is becoming a habit with him).
His Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), who runs a bordello, is barely on screen. Craig Robinson, as saxophonist Maceo Parker, gets more screen time but just as scant insight. His dad (Lennie James) is treated as a tyrant while some women such as backup singer Yvonne (Tika Sumpter) fade before they blossom.
What the film seems to be running away from is the fact that for all his genius, James Brown was not a man you would want to spend much time around.
He was a mercurial, driven, passionate man but his only concern — at least as portrayed here — was himself. He never has a single scene until the final moments when he cares for anyone else.
That’s a problem no movie can solve. So Taylor gives you ample concert footage and recording sessions making this into a James Brown’s Greatest Hits video with biographical linkage among his songs.
When he sings, Brown is king. When not, you want to slip out the back door.
Opens: August 1, 2014 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: A Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Jagged Films/Brian Grazer production in association with Wyolah Films
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Jacinte Blankenship, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott, Allison Janney
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Story by: Steven Baigelman, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Producers: Brian Grazer, Mick Jagger, Victoria Pearman, Erica Huggins, Tate Taylor
Executive producers: Peter Afterman, Trish Hofmann, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, John Norris, Anna Culp
Director of photography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Music: Thomas Newman
Executive music producer: Mick Jagger
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Michael McCusker
Choreographer: Aakomon Jones
PG-13 rating, 139 minutes