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‘Get On Up’: As James Brown, Chadwick Boseman makes it funky

Chadwick Boseman (“42”) expertly replicates James Brown’s signature dance moves “Get On Up.” UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Chadwick Boseman (“42”) expertly replicates James Brown’s signature dance moves in “Get On Up.” UNIVERSAL PICTURES

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‘GET ON UP’ ★★★

James Brown Chadwick Boseman

Bobby Byrd Nelsan Ellis

Ben Bart Dan Aykroyd

Susie Brown Viola Davis

Joe Brown Lennie James

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Tate Taylor and written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth. Running time: 138 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: September 2, 2014 6:11AM



Nobody sang, danced, walked or talked like the late great James Brown. He was a revolutionary talent and a hugely influential artist.

Also, from time to time Brown seemed bat-bleep nuts. We’re talking about a guy who reportedly buried bundles of cash all over his 60-acre estate in South Carolina. Brown also served a pair of three-year prison sentences, was arrested multiple times on domestic violence charges and allegedly went after a service repairman with a steak knife. After Brown died, his embalmed body was kept in an undisclosed location for two months while loved ones squabbled over his fortune. Brown was finally buried in a gold-plated casket.

And yet they made a PG-13 movie about his life. Objection!

It’s the powerful, raw, energized performance by Chadwick Boseman that makes this film worth seeing.

In a performance on a par with Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning turn in “Ray” and Joaquin Phoenix’s nominated work in “Walk the Line,” Boseman is astonishingly good, inhabiting the persona of a larger-than-life icon without ever delving into caricature or mere impersonation.

Boseman has Brown’s unique speech patterns down cold, he expertly replicates Brown’s signature dance moves and (thanks in no small part to some award-level hair and makeup work), we believe the 32-year-old actor as the 18-year-old James Brown and the 63-year-old James Brown.

(For the concert scenes, Boseman lip-syncs to Brown’s vocals. He does some of his own singing in the rehearsal and studio footage.)

It’s a four-star performance in a three-star movie. As much as I loved every second of Boseman’s performance, I was frustrated by the somewhat sanitized telling of Brown’s story, not to mention the over-direction by Tate Taylor (“The Help”), who nearly give me whiplash from all the chronological bouncing back and forth. Taylor also employs the unnecessary theatrical device of having Boseman/Brown look straight at the camera and even break the fourth wall and talk to us from time to time, as if he’s a character on “Modern Family.” (Clint Eastwood employed the same tactic with the film version of “Jersey Boys.” It didn’t work in that movie either.)

Taylor makes the curious choice to open with an extended sequence set in 1988, in which Brown shows up at his business offices in a strip mall and loses it because someone has used his private bathroom. From there we cut to a 1968 concert in Vietnam, and then we’re taken all the way back to little James Brown’s literally dirt-poor childhood in the South Carolina backwoods, where his dad (Lennie James) abuses him and his mother (Viola Davis) simply walks away.

Rare is the biopic that DOESN’T jump from era to era, but “Get On Up” may have set the all-time record. Once James Brown becomes JAMES BROWN, with all the No. 1 records and all the contentious relationships and all the controversies and triumphs and setbacks, there’s no compelling dramatic reason to go from 1964 to 1949 and now it’s 1968 and then we’re back with little James in the backwoods. Instead of immersing us in this man’s unlikely and amazing journey, it feels as if we’re being yanked around.

The film excels in the numerous performance scenes, whether it’s Brown leaving the headlining Rolling Stones open-mouthed with his performance at a filmed concert (Mick Jagger is a co-producer of “Get On Up”), orchestrating the irregular but killer snare-drum backbeat in a rehearsal of “Cold Sweat,” or owning the stage and the crowd in legendary shows at the Apollo and the Boston Garden. Boseman is electric, and Taylor’s direction is on point.

Dan Aykroyd (who worked with James Brown in “The Blues Brothers” and that thing they called a sequel) hams it up as Ben Bart, head of Brown’s agency Universal Attractions, but it’s an endearing performance. Nelsan Ellis from “True Blood” excels as Bobby Byrd, a talented performer in his own right who instantly recognized Brown’s greatness and was content to live in his shadow for years, putting up with his friend’s selfishness and casual cruelty, loyal to a fault. Allison Janney and Fred Melamed have unfortunate cameos as casually racist caricatures.

“Get On Up” doesn’t gloss over Brown’s demons, but the worst of his behavior is chronicled from that PG-13 distance. We get a full feel for Brown’s musical genius and his charisma, but even when Brown is wielding a shotgun or leading police on a high-speed chase, it feels like wacky hijinks. (Even a scene where Brown physically abuses his wife DeeDee, played by Jill Scott, is watered down when Brown breaks character and looks at us, ashamed. My guess is that’s not what Brown was feeling in the aftermath of such moments.)

The quietest scene in “Get On Up” is also one of the most powerful. Brown’s mother shows up backstage after a concert. The dressing room is cleared. Son and mother talk. Viola Davis and Boseman hit just the right notes in a scene that becomes more heartbreaking with each exchange.

From the moment this project was announced, “Get On Up” had no chance of working if the casting went wrong. Five minutes into Boseman’s performance, it was impossible to imagine any other actor playing the part.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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