Some of the best acting yet this year crackles on screen in Tate Taylor’s new biopic of singer James Brown in the film Get On Up. Too bad Taylor’s movie can’t match the sizzle. Maybe there’s just way too much to cram in. Despite the movie’s more than 2 hour running time, the montage of Brown’s life from his dirt poor upbringing to the grand finale of his seem like just that -- snippets.
Taylor infuses Get On Up with the same skill that we saw in his last directorial outing, The Help, but he had more to work with there. An opening scene where a PCP-induced high has Brown toting a shotgun and threatening to shoot someone who has used his private toilet, is humorous but needs a bit more explaining to make it pop. And people who come in and out of Brown’s life are so underdeveloped, it’s difficult to keep track.
But then there’s that main cast that just keeps Get On Up mesmerizing. Chadwick Boseman, whose feature-film breakthrough was incarnating Jackie Robinson in "42," had to exhibit a slow burn in that film. Here he’s "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," a man whose ego covers his tortured soul. Boseman captures every essence of it.
Viola Davis as Brown’s mother, Susie, is her usually captivating self -- never relenting as the abused mother who chooses freedom over her son, which eventually leads the boy to learn the tricks of the trade at his aunt’s brothel. When she returns years later to claim her place as his mother, Davis captures a woman who has let years gone without a look back.
Musician Jill Scott plays Brown’s second wife, Deirdre “Dee Dee” Jenkins, but her introduction and subsequent marriage to Brown is part of the choppiness -- first she’s a groupie in the audience, then in practically the next frame, she’s the victim of Brown’s spousal abuse. Scott's role, though, is seriously underwritten, which is a shame, because she has such a presence that you want to feel her pain instead of just see it.
Nelsan Ellis is another standout as Brown’s patient sideman Bobby Byrd, whose understated portrayal speaks volumes.
The low point of the main cast, however, unfortunately is Dan Ackroyd as Brown’s manager, Ben Bart. He’s at his most grating with an odd, tough-guy accent that sounds like one of his non-perfected characters on Saturday Night Live – a cross between Midwestern and Brooklynese that’s so distracting, you hope Brown will fire him sooner rather than later.
Where this non-linear movie does its best is in its concentrated ability to capture where Brown was at his best — in his concert performances. Boseman, who did some of the singing on the soundtrack (the rest of it is Brown himself), has the moves and the style, but credit Taylor for how he focuses his spotlight on the infectiousness of Brown’s performances.
Brown’s moves and presence have influenced everyone from Prince to Pharrell Williams to Michael Jackson to Mick Jagger, and there’s no way to watch the film without considering the impact that he had on modern music.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that the movie wouldn’t have gotten made had it not been for Mick Jagger (yes, that Mick Jagger) who was one of the producers along with Hollywood powerhouse Brian Grazer (Jagger is credited with securing the rights to make the production possible; this was a longtime Spike Lee passion that never got off the ground). Jagger knew Brown and they first worked together in 1964 when they were on the same television entertainment show in Santa Monica. It’s one of the best scenes in the film when Brown is informed by his manager that he wouldn’t be headlining the show as originally planned. A last-minute decision gave the honor to Jagger and his Rolling Stones. These are the types of snippets that give Get On Up its gold record moments.
Choppy or not, with these and the film’s stand out cast, Get On Up can certainly bust a move.