Chadwick Boseman does a brilliant job playing the role of James Brown. Boseman previously played Jackie Robinson in the film “42.” (Special Photo)
Sparked by Chadwick Boseman’s brilliant performance as the iconic Godfather of Soul, James Brown — and the brilliant music supervision by producer and longtime devotee Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones — “Get On Up’’ is a superb musical biopic. One of the founding fathers of funk music, Brown is credited with influencing the development of several music genres.
Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006 at age 73.
This marked the second time that Boseman portrayed a renowned black figure. He also played Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, in the 2012 movie “42.”
Directed by Tate Taylor, whose credits include “The Help,’’ “Get On Up” bypassed attempts to explain Brown’s messy and colorful life filled with contradictions.
Instead, the screenplay by Brits Jez and John-Henry Butterworth jumped between significant incidents such as the film’s 1988 opening with Brown, high on an illegal substance, using a rifle to terrorize a roomful of insurance agents, one of whom accidentally used Brown’s private bathroom in the same building.
That immediately was followed by a flashback to 20 years earlier of Brown flying into Vietnam under extremely heavy enemy fire to entertain American troops. The sequence also showed another side of Brown. When a military official asked him to limit the length of the show for the troops, Brown, in essence, said that only he will determine the length of the show.
That followed by the first of several sequences revealing Brown’s troubled childhood in Georgia, when he was abandoned by his mother and abusive father and sent to live in a brothel operated by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) in Augusta.
Jailed for theft for three years in Toccoa for stealing a suit — Boseman played Brown from ages 17 through 63 — he was paroled to the family of singer Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who became Brown’s long-suffering best friend and musical collaborator until he finally walked out following Brown’s famous 1971 concert in Paris.
Along the way, Taylor and his writers pointed to the contradictions: Brown was both a black nationalist and an integrationist who embraced President Lyndon Johnson; a devoted family man and wife-beater; a man who constantly reinvented himself but wasn’t averse to self-parody; and a pioneering entrepreneur who ended in trouble with the IRS and ultimately back in jail for a 1988 incident, which we see climaxed with a high-speed police chase.
All of that is less important, though, than the music and the way it was staged, which included Brown’s 1962 shows at the famous Apollo Theater in New York, where he recorded his groundbreaking “Live At the Apollo” album; an all-star variety show at which he upstaged the Rolling Stones. It even showed Brown’s guest appearance amid a lily-white crowd in the 1965 film “Ski Party” which starred Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman. The movie shifted into slow motion to suggest Brown’s awareness that he may be trying too hard for a crossover audience.
The high point in “Get On Up” is the remarkable re-creation of Brown’s Boston concert, hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. The dynamic performer single-handedly managed to defuse a potential riot in Boston. The concert was held despite the objections of the Boston police chief who wanted the concert cancelled because he thought it would incite violence.
The movie did little to explore the racial problems during Brown’s life.
One sequence had approximately 10 half-naked and blindfolded very young black boys fighting each in a boxing ring other on a plantation’s front lawn while a New Orleans jazz band played as whites laughed and drank cocktails.
In another sequence, Brown and his entourage were staying at a high-class New Orleans hotel when some white guests complained that they spent a lot of money to stay there and didn’t expect to see minorities staying there.
The film did little to explore Brown’s main social activism. He was deeply interested in preserving the need for education among youths, influenced by his troubled childhood and his being forced to drop out of the seventh grade for wearing “insufficient clothes.” Due to heavy dropout rates during the 1960s, Brown released the pro-education song, “Don’t Be a Drop-Out.” Royalties from the song were donated to charity used for dropout prevention programs.
The film also took pains to point out Brown’s enormous contributions to developing funk and pointing the way toward rap.
“Get On Up’’ avoids sentimentality, even when an uncomfortable Brown is visited backstage by his elderly mother (Viola Davis).
Dan Aykroyd gave a strong performance portraying Brown’s manager/adviser Ben Bart. Aykroyd and the real-life Brown appeared in two films together – “The Blues Brothers” in 1980 and “Doctor Detroit” in 1983.
But the film belongs, heart and soul, to Boseman, who expertly lip-syncs to Brown’s original tracks.
Barry Levine writes entertainment stories for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.