Chadwick Boseman is electrifying as Godfather of Soul James Brown in daringly offbeat biopic Get on Up, which matches its subject’s brass-necked, go-for-broke audacity with its own bold cinematic risk-taking. Brown fearlessly pushed the boundaries of popular music; director Tate Taylor (The Help), working from a script by British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, shakes up biopic conventions with similar zest.
Flashing back and forth in time to tell a life story is a common enough filmmaking trope, but Taylor gives the device an almost surreal spin, taking episodes from Brown’s dirt-poor Georgia childhood, his rise to musical fame, the imperial pomp of his prime and the caprices of his drug-addled decline, and framing them as aspects of Brown’s own cocky myth-making. This is, after all, the man who gave himself such grandiose titles as the Hardest-Working Man in Showbusiness, Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk, Soul Brother Number One and Mr Dynamite.
Boseman’s Brown repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, smiling and winking at the camera as if to let us know that this is very much his version of events. We do get facets of the real Brown – revolutionary genius in the studio; breathtaking showman on stage; monstrous tyrant off it, fining his musicians for bum notes and beating his wives – but Taylor never pretends to be creating a complete portrait.
Of course, the strategy would count for little if the film didn’t get the music right. Fortunately, Get On Up nails it. And so does Boseman. He was very impressive in sports biopic 42 as baseball player Jackie Robinson, another barrier-breaking African-American icon. Here, he is sensational. Lip-synching to Brown’s voice, he takes the breath away with his recreations of the singer’s trademark splits, spins, slides and glides.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 139 mins. Director Tate Taylor.
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