“Get on Up: The James Brown Story” opens in a Georgia strip mall that houses a business enterprise owned by the legendary soul singer.
It is September 1988. Brown is 55 years old and navigating a downturn in his career. After discovering someone has used the restroom in his office, Brown (Chadwick Boseman), dressed in a lime-green track suit and armed with a shotgun, terrorizes a gathering of insurance company employees, humiliating the woman who admits to being the trespasser and discharging the firearm in the process.
As police sirens wail in the distance, Brown decides it’s time to leave. So he climbs back into his pickup truck and flees, precipitating a chase that ends in infamy.
It’s a curious place to start the life story of a man who changed popular music and pop culture as deeply and vastly as any.
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But the biopic’s makers use it as a jumping-off point, a place from which they can delve deep into the life of a man who was propelled by so much charisma and genius but tormented by so many demons and wounded by so much betrayal.
Much of “Get on Up” focuses on Brown’s youth in rural Georgia, a time of grinding poverty and physical and emotional abuse. First his mother, then his father abandon him, leaving him to hustle in a brothel run by his aunt. He gets into plenty of trouble, serving prison time for a robbery. But along the way he is introduced to gospel music and begins to nurture the talent that will become his salvation.
Boseman is electrifying in the role of Brown, capturing his neon, bullish personality from age 17 to his mid-60s. He is no stranger to depicting legends: He played Jackie Robinson in the 2013 film “42.” Likewise, Nelsan Ellis is convincing as Bobby Byrd, whose family rescued a teenage Brown from prison and who became Brown’s longtime right-hand man.
Like many biopics, “Get on Up” takes liberties with the truth in depicting some events. (The Rolling Stones, who had usurped Brown as the headliner, were not backstage watching Brown perform at the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, according to Mick Jagger, who co-produced the film.)
And it glosses over some of the more odious moments in Brown’s life. He is rightfully heralded for performing for troops in war-torn Vietnam, for performing in strife-ridden Boston two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and for inserting himself in the civil rights movement by recording black-empowerment anthems like “Say It Loud (I’m Black I’m Proud).” He complains at one point that white people see him as a separatist, blacks as an Uncle Tom. He was complicated.
But Brown was also temperamental and prone to acts of violence. He was a taskmaster as a bandleader, one who fired and fined his musicians seemingly on a whim.
“Get on Up” addresses that issue in one scene, when saxophonist Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson of “The Office” fame) leads a mutiny over money and time off: The entire band hasn’t been paid or had a day off in weeks, and Parker demands immediate remedy. Brown calls their bluff, and they all walk off, save for Byrd, who remains loyal to the bitter end.
Brown was also involved in several domestic dispute incidents. “Get on Up” depicts one of those but flinches as it does.
It occurs after a holiday party at Brown’s mansion, one during which Brown, dressed like Santa, handed out $5 bills to the children who attended. Afterward, in a moment of jealousy, he angrily confronts his second wife, Deedee (Jill Scott). The audience hears the abuse but sees only the consequences: She tumbles into a table.
“Get on Up,” directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”), takes viewers back and forth in time, juxtapositioning Brown’s present life with scenes from his past, some of which are dark and disturbing.
One shows Brown as a preteen taking part in a barbaric ritual at a lavish party, where the only blacks in attendance are the help and the musicians in the band. Brown is one of about a dozen black males herded into a boxing ring blindfolded, with one hand tied behind his back, the other in a boxing glove. As the scene ends, Brown is battered but victorious, having drawn inspiration from the music that accompanied his battering.
Such scenes serve the underlying theme of the film, which succeeds in chronicling Brown’s precipitous rise in the music industry and illustrating the genius and dynamism of Brown’s inimitable brand of funk and soul and its popularity among both black and white audiences. But it doesn’t as successfully capture the depth, breadth and endurance of its influence, which resonated for decades.
But the higher purpose appears to be establishing a broad context of a life of many triumphs, including several White House visits, and lots of tribulations and troubles. And sorrow. Brown mourns hard the unexpected loss of Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), president of the agency that launched Brown’s career. He also grieves his son Teddy, who was 19 when he was killed in a car accident in 1973.
Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth remind viewers of such incidents and the indelible effects they had on Brown as a way, it seems, of explaining his deep-seeded flaws.
Late in the movie, Brown is visited in his dressing room by his mother, Susie (Viola Davis). He hasn’t seen her since he was a boy and she again rejected him, refusing to admit she is his mother. In his dressing room, Brown scoffs at her newfound loyalty, slips her a $100 bill and sends her on his way. The scene ends with him alone, on his knees, weeping.
The film returns to its opening scene, following Brown in his pickup on a harrowing two-state police chase. As it comes to a dramatic finish, Brown emerges from the truck, but the Brown we see initially, for a flash, is Brown as a young boy, wide-eyed and frightened.
Ultimately, “Get on Up” is a broad portrait of a brilliant, tormented artist and keen businessman in a constant state of pursuit and flight: a visionary chasing the glory and fame he deserved and fleeing the past that regularly overtook him.
‘GET ON UP’
Rated PG-13 | Time: 2:18