Hollywood does a fair job satisfying our appetite for music biopics (see sidebar) but none has been so long in coming as that of the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown.
“The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” had 16 No. 1 Billboard singles and has influenced nearly every musical genre. But if there’s one takeaway achievement from “Get on Up,” in which Chadwick Boseman (“42”) so-capably channels “Mr. Dynamite,” it’s that James Brown sired funk.
Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) and producer Mick Jagger capture the essence of that style — a fusion of gospel and soul — and the flawed musical visionary who introduced the world to hits like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” not to mention the inexhaustible performer’s revolutionary dance moves.
Told mostly through flashbacks, the energy and funk levels only rarely let up. Brown was abandoned by his mother (Viola Davis) and sent to live with a surrogate aunt (Octavia Spencer) at a Georgia joy house. For respite, he got on up to church where the lively spirituals inspired him musically, though apparently not morally. He met singer Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), with whom he would later partner, during a brief prison stint.
Brown’s music catches on fast. In one flashback, he is an unknown chatting with Little Richard, then a burger flipper on the verge of stardom. In the next, Brown is flying into Vietnam under fire to entertain the troops at the apex of his career. Perhaps the only mistake Brown made (notwithstanding the singer’s IRS problems and domestic assaults, which the movie glosses over) was his attempt to crossover in a silly teen romp film where his Famous Flames sing his signature hit dressed in ski sweaters. This “honky hoedown,” as he called it, is as painful to watch as it sounds.
Dan Aykroyd (who teamed with the real James Brown in the 1980 comedy “The Blues Brothers”) co-stars as agent Ben Bart but the real draw is Boseman who, though he only lip-synchs here, delivers a magnificent performance playing “Soul Brother No. 1” from his teen years through his 60s.
This one’s a measured tribute to funk and I feel good … about its Oscar prospects.