A grand piece of magic happens with Chadwick Boseman’s utter inhabitation of the role of James Brown—himself an artist who gave a lifelong performance—and still, the mysterious man behind the legend comes through with uncommon, heart-stopping electricity. It’s not just that Boseman has the moves, the splits, the hip-swiveling attitude—he’s also got a frenetic hummingbird in his voice box (unavoidably, he’s lip-synching on some of the songs), and the young actor, already a stunner in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, leaps fearlessly into Brown’s ego, his eyes burning behind the mask.
The difficulty here, insanely high yet taken on by director Tate Taylor with an inspired hand, is in making a compelling story about a man who turns himself into an island. (Not for nothing does Boseman address the lens directly several times; he’s lost in himself.) The movie gives its subject not the usual strong-willed love interest, but a fellow traveler—the classic hype man Bobby Byrd (True Blood’s velvet-voiced Nelsan Ellis), who learns to dim his own star to make way for Brown’s fiery comet. These self-negating scenes are awful to watch yet fascinating, as are the band’s rehearsals, complete with Brown’s infamous fining of his musicians for unfunky mistakes.
The film’s few missteps are negligible: concessions to a genre that always seems to require a raging bull in a jail cell. Still, so much of Get on Up is uncannily perfect, from its nightmarish Georgia childhood flashbacks to delirious concert re-creations and the casting of Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd as Brown’s longtime manager, Ben Bart, who grabs the whole of the movie in one moment on a private plane. He pushes his client toward fearlessness, because the alternative is too hard to bear. You have to see this thing.
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