There’s a delicious moment in “Get On Up,” Tate Taylor’s new James Brown biopic, when Brown — played by Chadwick Boseman, in a thrillingly magnetic performance — is about to appear on the T.A.M.I. Show, a multi-act concert filmed in 1964.
Backstage, the singer is informed that he and his band won’t be closing the show; that honor will be going to an up-and-coming British band called the Rolling Stones. Brown shakes off the disappointment, goes out and blows the roof off the place. Then he saunters over to the Stones, just five skinny blokes who don’t know what hit them. “Welcome to America,” he says.
Did he say that in real life? No matter. The scene illustrates Brown’s most important qualities: his indescribable drive as a performer, and his almost blinding charisma.
For that, kudos go to director Taylor and producers Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger. But none of it would work, of course, without Boseman, an actor on a remarkable run of late, playing Jackie Robinson in “42” and now this. If he was impressive as the dignified Robinson, he’s electrifying as Brown.
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And just as Brown, in life, upstaged pretty much everyone — including his bandmates, the Famous Flames — Boseman does that here. Viola Davis plays Brown’s mother, Susie, but because Susie left her son as a boy, we don’t see enough Davis — just a few sad moments from Brown’s hardscrabble rural youth, and then one excruciating, wonderfully played scene later, when she comes to see her adult son backstage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
The central relationship in Brown’s life, though, was with his friend and partner, Bobby Byrd, who stuck with him even as Brown’s ego pushed many away. As Byrd, Nelsan Ellis gives a thoughtful performance that, appropriately, grounds the film.
Many biopics of performers follow a grating formula: tough youth, obstacles overcome, fame discovered, more obstacles, descent into old age or worse. Here, Tate and talented screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth avoid this by jumping around in time, ditching chronology for a thematic approach. It can get confusing, but it keeps us on our toes.
They also have Brown break the fourth wall at key moments. Alas, this isn’t done early or frequently enough to feel coherent. Perhaps there just wasn’t time; even at 138 minutes, the film has to barrel though parts of Brown’s long public life. (He died in 2006, at 73.)
In the end, we have a portrait that is not uniformly positive — Brown was too complicated for that.