The Godfather of Soul gets the royal treatment in the Mick Jagger production “Get On Up.” The life of James Brown, who was also known as “the hardest working man in show business,” is grittily portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. The nonlinear film jumps in and out of the life and times of James Brown, opening with the humorous yet tragic incident that landed him in jail. Incensed by the neighboring business’ refusal to refrain from using his dry cleaning business’ bathroom, Brown interrupts their meeting with a diatribe for the ages-riffle in hand. We then are ushered back to Brown’s roots in rural Georgia. We see him as an innocent child who witnesses the complex abusive and sexual relationship of his father (Lennie James) and mother (Viola Davis).
Brown’s childhood is wrought with a multidimensional sphere of experiences: Poverty, domestic abuse, abandonment, lynching, bordellos, and religious ecstasy. It’s not long before Brown winds up in prison for the petty crime of stealing a suit, and thanks to the Jim Crow south, he spends years behind bars. It’s in prison where he meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who takes him in once paroled, and together they form the first of many installments of future James Brown lead bands: The Famous Flames. The rest, as they say, is history. And were it not for the two-sided nature of the music business (the music and the business), the rest of the story would be dull. But of course it’s not. It’s anything but.
Playing James Brown is a daunting enough task as it is. After all, who could possibly reproduce all of the quirks that simultaneously made you chuckle and scratch your head while listening to James Brown? Never mind the dancing, stage presence, vocal performance, showmanship, etc. There will never be another James Brown. And knowing that Jamie Foxx forever set the standard for the music biopic genre with his incomparable imitation of Ray Charles (although he had the benefit of sitting at the piano with the master himself), the bar has been raised to a virtually unattainable height. Frankly, there’s nowhere for Chadwick Boseman to go. Despite this, although Boseman never really becomes James Brown in the way that Foxx became Ray, he does manage to emphatically tell the wildly entertaining story of one of the greatest performers to ever take the stage-and do it on the good foot!
The music of James Brown is the true driving force of the movie. At one point during a rehearsal, Brown goes around the room of musicians and asks each band member to state what instrument they play. He then corrects each band member and informs them that whether it’s a trumpet, a saxophone or a trombone, what they’re really playing is a drum. The groove in the music comes from the beat. The rhythm of those songs, layered with brass winds, is an ultra magnetic force spanning time, space, and race. Good God!, no wonder it feels good. And for all of the tragedy and heartbreak you’ll learn about during the course of the movie, you’ll need that musical pick-me-up to get through it.