Is it possible for a single movie to capture James Brown in all his multitudes, contradictions and reinventions? Probably not, but “Get On Up” makes an admirable, fitfully successful stab at the life of the brilliant but volatile funk-soul legend who wore at least as many personalities and personas as he did nicknames and honorary titles. Arriving at the end of a high season for biopics of black historical and cultural figures (“42,” “Mandela,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”), “Get On Up” runs shorter on the pandering simplifications and sanctifying airs that plagued those films, while still delivering a very digestible, authorized portrait that might best be described as “warts and some.” A strong marketing push by Universal and a dearth of adult-skewing fare bodes well for this Brian Grazer-Mick Jagger production, which clearly has its sights set on the late-summer sleeper success of both “The Butler” ($116 million) and director Tate Taylor’s previous “The Help” ($169 million).
Whatever else one may fault about “Get On Up,” one thing that’s faultless is its star, Chadwick Boseman, who plays Brown from age 16 to 60 with a dexterity and invention worthy of his subject. Last year, Boseman did a fine job as Jackie Robinson in “42,” but he seemed hemmed in by that movie’s need to temper its subject’s seething anger and disappointment. In “Get On Up,” we have a chance to see this remarkable actor in full bloom, whether he’s giving life to Brown’s signature dance moves — the ones where it seemed as if an electrical current were passing through his body — or burrowing deep into the performer’s tortured, little-boy-lost soul. Boseman is an empathic presence, and nothing he does smacks of mimicry. He feels Brown from the inside out, the way Brown felt his own distinctive rhythms, and even when the movie itself seems to be on autopilot, Boseman never leaves the captain’s chair.
As should surprise no one who saw “The Help,” which deposited a noble white crusader into a Disneyfied version of the Jim Crow South, Taylor isn’t the sort of director one turns to for gritty historical realism. And when he opens “Get On Up” with a comically exaggerated depiction of Brown’s 1988 arrest after a high-speed police chase, it feels like an outtake from one of the “Blues Brothers” movies in which Brown starred for director John Landis. (Blues Brother emeritus Dan Aykroyd returns the favor by appearing here as Brown’s longtime manager, Ben Bart.) It doesn’t help matters when Taylor follows with a scene of Brown arriving for a 1968 concert in Vietnam amid “Apocalypse Now”-sized napalm blasts that nearly blow his plane out of the sky. Then the movie about-faces into overly lyricized “Color Purple” territory with a sequence devoted to Brown’s early years in the South Carolina backwoods, where he was the only child of an abusive laborer father (Lennie James) and a mother (Viola Davis) who left the family when James was still a young boy. (Afterward, Brown was raised in Georgia, mostly by a paternal aunt known as Honey and played here by “The Help” Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.)
But perhaps it’s fitting that a movie on a subject as polymorphous as Brown never quite settles on a style or a tone. Rather than following standard chronological-biopic convention, the script by British playwright Jez Butterworth (“Jerusalem”) and his brother John-Henry splinters the narrative into a series of nonlinear fragments, hopscotching across Brown’s life like a rock skimming a turbulent stream. One minute it’s 1964 and Brown — then the lead singer of the Famous Flames — is upstaging the Rolling Stones at the recording of the seminal concert film “The T.A.M.I. Show.” Then, on a dime, it’s back to 1949 and the teenage Brown’s arrest on petty theft charges. The time-jumping effect can be jarring, and the attempt to suggest we’re seeing everything through Brown’s own eyes (complete with the character’s occasional direct address to the camera) never fully takes hold. But the structure gives the film the freedom to bypass such interminable genre staples as the scene where our hero wows some influential producer with a dynamite audition, hears his/her song on the radio for the first time, or makes his/her first TV appearance.
Instead, “Get On Up” spends most of its time with Brown already ensconced as The Hardest Working Man in Show Business — onstage, in the recording booth, and in the rehearsal studio, where one of the best scenes shows him working out the irresistible snare-drum backbeat of “Cold Sweat.” That Brown could be a tyrannical perfectionist (as well as a paranoiac who deplored being upstaged) is a well-established fact from which “Get On Up” doesn’t shy away, but the movie is equally good at revealing Brown the musical innovator, who surrounded himself with a small army of talented sidemen (Pee Wee Ellis, Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley) and pushed them to be better than even they thought they could be.
As for the music itself, Taylor (working with Jagger, who earns a special “executive music producer” credit) has compiled more than two dozen of Brown’s live and studio recordings, remixed from the original tracks, and the funky guitar licks and staccato horn blasts have rarely sounded better. But for the re-creations of Brown’s historic concerts at the Apollo, the Boston Garden (in 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.) and the Paris Olympia, Taylor had the actors sing and play live on top of the backing tracks, and while it’s Brown we hear in the film, the scenes nevertheless quake with the charge of live performances.
Race — the central, if bungled, subject of “The Help” — rarely raises its head here, no matter that Brown may have been the only person in history to count both Al Sharpton and segregationist senator Strom Thurmond among his close friends. Neglected wives (played by Jacinte Blankenship and Jill Scott) come and go, with hints of domestic violence and drug abuse kept carefully within the boundaries prescribed by the PG-13 rating. Instead, the movie foregrounds Brown’s long and rocky friendship with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the singer-songwriter whose family took in the teenage Brown after his parole and who remained at Brown’s side, through many trials and tribulations, until the early 1970s.
Their fractious codependency is one of the few aspects of “Get On Up” that feels truly raw and unvarnished, and it’s Ellis (“True Blood”) who gives the movie its other momentous turn. It’s a familiar role — the aspirant performer who discovers a talent greater than himself — but Ellis plays it with such compassionate grace, unflinching in the face of Brown’s most virulent invective, that it transcends the cliche. He becomes a kind of Salieri to Boseman’s pompadoured Mozart, the good man at once entranced and singed by the great man’s bright-burning flame.