The only major problem I had with GET ON UP—and it's a problem that more or less caused me constant frustration for the duration of the film—is that it's not long enough, only skimming the surface of James Brown's career and life. I don't think there's any real issue with trying to sanitize the life he led, although his well-established issues with drugs, womanizing and domestic abuse are only briefly acknowledged. But at its core—its soul, if you will—is a death-defying, physically-exhausting-just-to-watch performance by Chadwick Boseman (42, DRAFT DAY) as the Godfather of Soul, who dances every step like a man possessed. With just the right series of wigs and an added underbite, Boseman is transformed to the point where I forgot what the real Brown looked like.
GET ON UP bounces back and forth in time, from Brown's tragic upbringing, during which he was abandoned by both parents (Viola Davis and Lennie James), raised by his whorehouse madame aunt (Octavia Spencer), sent to prison for stealing a suit, joining a vocal group (which quickly led to him turning their harmless gospel stylings into straight-up R&B music), to signing a record contract and recording their first songs. The film also breezes through Brown's romantic entanglements (marriages and otherwise), troubles within his band caused by Brown's grueling perfectionism and endless rehearsals, and the political role Brown played in calming the African-American communities of the country after Martin Luther King's assassination. But again, director Tate Taylor (THE HELP) opts to blow through these incidents as if they were of equal importance in Brown's life or the nation.
What Taylor wisely does do is focus on the music, presenting many songs in their entirely or close to it, whether they are in scenes in which Brown and the band are recording or, most impressively, when the film re-creates Brown in concert, with Boseman tearing up the stage and bringing Brown at his peak back to life (although he is lip syncing, probably for the best). One of the most fascinating and enjoyable aspects of GET ON UP is giving us a clearer understanding at the friendship and on-stage partnership between Brown and sideman Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, of "True Blood" fame). I could have watched an entire film about the complicated but necessary support these two men gave each other.
Another interesting relationship that I wish had been developed more is that between Brown and the legendary saxophonist Maceo Parker, played in a nice dramatic turn from Craig Robinson. Parker was always seeking more respect and compensation for the band, and for the hours they put in and the sheer talent they possessed, he wasn't overstepping even a little. Sadly, the portions of the GET ON UP that suffer the greatest are the stories about Brown's relationships with women. I was especially disappointed in the portrayal of DeeDee Brown by singer Jill Scott, who is actually a gifted actor as well, but you wouldn't know it from the unwritten character she plays here. And the rather startling moment when Brown hits her followed a few scenes later when he turns jealous aggression into sexual energy borders on the tasteless.
But as I said, when the music is thumping and Boseman is in full performance mode, GET ON UP becomes damn impressive, not so much that you forget its deeply drawn flaws, but just enough that I can say there's something there worth checking out. If this music means something to you and you're a fan of discovering an unstoppable performance at the heart of a decidedly average work, then you've come to the right place.
There is more than one strong performance in GET ON UP, but Boseman sets a high bar as both a physical force and digging deep to find out what makes a man forego friendship and loyalty for musical perfection. It's a closer call than maybe I'm making it sound like, but since I tend to let my love of singular acting work trump most other things, I'm saying this one is worth checking out if you've exhausted about a half-dozen other options in theaters now.