It's hard not to feel good while watching Chadwick Boseman exuberantly disappear into the role of the Godfather of Soul.
His embodiment of James Brown in Get on Up is so masterful that viewers forget they're watching an actor play the R&B singer.
After nimbly playing Jackie Robinson in 42, Boseman's performance goes even further here (*** out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide). His portrayal of Brown from his midteens to age 60 leaves a powerful, haunting impression of a complicated man. The musical numbers, with Brown's remixed vocals and Boseman re-creating his signature dance moves, are mesmerizing.
A remarkable actor, Boseman is the reason to see the film.
The fractured narrative structure, however, is less effective in capturing Brown's complexity. The non-linear style scrambles the chronology in a way that detracts more than it illuminates. And director Tate Taylor's decision to have Boseman address the camera in several scenes further distracts. Breaking the fourth wall arguably suits the subject of a master showman like Brown. As directed by Taylor, however, those segments feel stilted. And the comments made in these direct addresses are more banal than revealing.
The script by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth laudably attempts to break out of the stodgy biopic framework. Perhaps in the hands of a more experienced director the stylistic choices might have worked. But Taylor's only other film was 2011's The Help, a rather whitewashed portrait of the American South in the 1960s.
Overall, the film's structural flaws are overshadowed by Boseman's tour de forceperformance and strong supporting portrayals by Viola Davis, as Brown's mother,Octavia Spencer as James' Aunt Honey, and Nelsan Ellis as musician/bandleaderBobby Byrd.
The screenplay is refreshing in its lack of sentimentality. Brown isn't always likable, especially in his high-handed treatment of his band and volatile behavior toward his wives. But he was clearly determined, magnetic and massively talented. His impoverished childhood years, when he was abandoned by both parents, are poignantly conveyed. Music seemed his salvation even then.
Salvation in a more literal sense was offered by Byrd, who helped the teenage Brown get out of jail where he was languishing on petty-theft charges. The frontman of The Flames (later The Famous Flames), Byrd gave Brown a place to stay with his family, as well as his start in the music business. Ellis is a standout as a musician who stood by Brown as the singer mistreated and overshadowed him. Brown's perfectionism comes through loud and clear in a great scene in which he works out the backbeat ofCold Sweat.
Brown's turbulent relationship with Byrd is an emotional cornerstone of the film. Ellis (True Blood'sLafayette Reynolds) is multidimensional and vibrant in what could have been a thankless part.
Get on Up presents intermittent revelations amid its zig-zagging chronology. But the story feels repetitive, often sanitized and insufficiently illuminating. Some scenes go on too long and other seminal moments seem glossed over. Taylor tries to cover too much ground, and events meant to seem vital end up feeling haphazard.
The film changes tone, sometimes jarringly, as it hopscotches over the funk-soul legend's life. Consequently, audiences will not arrive at a clear picture of just who James Brown was. But they will undeniably experience what a talented actor Boseman is.