Starring Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer
Four-and-a-half out of five stars
Chadwick Boseman, who was terrific as Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42, is even better as James Brown in "Get On Up."
A sprawling biopic that took years to get made, director Tate Taylor guides Boseman and company back and forth throughout Brown’s life in what is a relentlessly entertaining, human portrayal of the "Godfather of Soul."
It begins with a strung-out and used-up Brown in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia, where one of the most famous men in the world is agitated because someone utilized the bathroom in his storefront office, which is hosting a business seminar. Brown has become unhinged in, we find out later, what is a seminal moment in the latter part of his life -- a life that began with an awful childhood in which his mother (Viola Davis) left him to fend for himself with his seemingly abusive father who, in turn, handed over young James to his aunt (Octavia Spencer), where he was raised in a brothel.
James is eventually arrested for stealing a three-piece suit from a car and is given a lengthy sentence at a juvenile detention center. Turns out it’s the best thing that ever happened to James, because this is where he meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the lead singer of a gospel group who performed at the detention center.
Byrd convinces his mother to take James in, and that’s when James Brown and the Famous Flames are born, and Brown begins his ascent to super-stardom.
Boseman’s performance as James Brown may very well define his career. It is, in no uncertain terms, Oscar-worthy. It helps that he has several dynamic scene partners, most notably the surprising Jill Scott, who plays his wife, DeeDee Brown, and the aforementioned Nelsan Ellis and Viola Davis. Special note needs to be made of Brandon Smith. As a young Little Richard, he has just two scenes in the movie but when he’s on screen with Boseman, it’s like watching a young Pacino and De Niro act together. These two young men are that good.
The performance pieces in Get On Up, whether at The Apollo, or in the bar where James meets Little Richard are, for the most part, engrossing and in some cases, mesmerizing. Overall, Get On Up does what great cinema is supposed to do: it’s transformative, it’s engaging, and even when it’s rendering James Brown’s ugliest moments, it is beautiful.