It’s difficult to dislike a film that begins with late-model, track-suited James Brown (Chadwick Boseman), deadpan high on unidentified drugs, hair freshly styled into a large, ladylike swoop, brandishing a shotgun in front of a terrified, captive audience of employees, delivering a monologue on matters of self-determination and the pleasure of bowel movements in the privacy of one’s own toilet. There are less freaky ways of announcing biopic intentions, but this'll do just fine.
Not long after, in another place and time, Brown wears a reindeer sweater while dancing and singing on the set of the 60s teen film Ski Party, his perception slowed to an observant crawl as he surveys the weird, Caucasian uncoolness of his predicament. Moments later he’s a child in church, absorbing the maelstrom of music, noise, shouting and dancing, letting it shape what he will become. This fractured story of the legendary musician jumps around as much as the man himself.
That scrambled egg approach -- never confusing and sometimes cleverly juxtaposing eras to reinforce its focus on one troubled man’s artistic genius against a backdrop of brutal, systemic racism -- is director Tate Taylor (The Help) and screenwriters Steven Baigelman, John-Henry Butterworth and Jez Butterworth's showiest achievement. It distracts from the ways in which Get On Up is utterly conventional, reliant on a greatest hits approach to Brown’s music and personal trials, kind of like a chopped and screwed Jersey Boys.
We learn, for example, that Brown was one of the most innovative artists in 20th century popular music, that he had a painful childhood, that the whites-only era he grew up in damaged his psyche but couldn't stand in his way professionally, that he demanded unquestioning loyalty and intensely hard work from his friends and employees, that he had a drug problem, and that he abused women. In other words, we learn nothing we didn't already know. But audiences expecting that kind of nothing, the calcified legend built on easy-to-Google facts, are treated to just the sort of stylishly presented, mad-genius-comfort-food narrative they were hoping for.
The truest pleasure of Get On Up, then, is Boseman, who carried the inspirational Jackie Robinson biopic 42 on his stoic shoulders. Here he takes the limitations of the material and fully becomes a front man, transforming himself into a funny, aggressive, egocentric bulldozer. His Brown is bruised and battered, and he bruises and batters in return, extending the church influence into adulthood where he likens his talent to the presence of God and takes control of his own career from the hands of “the white devil." Addressing the camera directly with an intense gaze, admonishing the United States military (right before he takes the stage at a USO show) that they must never "tell me when, where or for how long I can be funky," insisting and getting absolute freedom to do absolutely as he pleases, Boseman rides Brown's lightning and stirs up a lip-syncing frenzy. He brings "the super heavy funk" even when the film contents itself with middle-weight status.