James Brown (Boseman) takes us on a whistle-stop tour of his life, from struggling in poverty as Little Junior, to joining R&B group The Famous Flames, to becoming the world-famous Godfather Of Soul.
James Brown prided himself on many things — humility was hardly one of his virtues — but one of the self-applied accolades he touted the most was his rep as ‘The Hardest Working Man In Show Business’. And as a man with 94 U.S.-charting hit singles to his name, who barely stopped performing his entire adult life, it was no hollow boast. So any biopic tackling Brown would need to take a creative approach to cram even half of it in. And Tate ‘The Help’ Taylor’s Get On Up (co-written by Edge Of Tomorrow’s Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) is nothing if not bold and inventive.
It begins with a semi-comical routine set in 1988, involving a woman crapping in a toilet, a self-help business course and a raging, crack-addled, shotgun-toting Minister Of New New Super Heavy Funk. Then it timewarps to 20 years earlier, over the skies of Vietnam, where Mr. Brown and his band draw fire from the enemy and screech down a military-base runway with a flaming engine. Then it whips back to 1939 and Brown’s impoverished shack-in-the-bayou childhood, then forward to 1964 to the star’s celebrated appearance on the T.A.M.I. show, where he upstaged The Rolling Stones. (Mick Jagger is a producer on the film, so the inclusion of a rock-biopic cliché where the young Stones are called “instant has-beens” is semi-forgivable as an in-joke.)
All the while, Mr. Brown himself, in the totally impressive form of Chadwick Boseman, acts as our host, delivering that husky jabber-patter to camera, hard-selling the legend (and who knows, maybe a good dose of truth, too). It’s as if his crack-infused ego is haunting his own past — at points he appears with himself in the background, or even jumps out of a scene mid-dialogue, leaving his manager, Ben Bart (Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd paying it back), patronising thin air.
As an approach it is sometimes jarring, and it allows Brown to let himself off a little too much (his notably off-screen wifebeating, for example). But in an electrifying, career-making performance, Boseman plays it just right. This relative newcomer never lets us forget that Mr. Brown was toughest on those who loved him most, and was as sociopathic as he was charismatic Even if Taylor’s cut ’n’ paste craziness does prove too dizzying, Boseman’s magnetism, on-stage and off-, will keep you rooted.
Energising, stylish and engrossing, although its scattershot chronology and egocentric approach might not be to everyone;s taste. Still, Boseman is brilliant - it would be madness if he isn't among the Oscar runners this season.