Film review: Get On Up

Chadwick Boseman gives a gut-busting performance as the godfather of soul
Cert 12a | ★★★☆☆
Many films don’t feature a single scene in which two female characters talk about something other than a man. I’m not sure this film features a single scene in which any two characters talk about something other than James Brown.
Like many biopics, Get On Up subscribes to a Great Man view of history, presenting us with a subject that shapes his era through the sheer force of his genius. As portrayed here, Brown is quite literally a visionary – at one point, his ten-year-old self hallucinates a funk band from the future. The script coddles his personal legacy (the cost of winkling the film rights from his estate?), while influential members of his entourage – bassist Bootsy Collins, singer/lover Yvonne Fair – are reduced to negligible bit parts. Those who don’t accept that funk was dreamed up by a prepubescent boy will rue the absence of the sort of historical context that made, say, Bob Dylan flick I’m Not There such a joy to watch. For backstory, they’ll have to make do with token scenes of childhood abuse that are only partly based in biographical truth.
Get On Up is a film about James Brown in isolation, and it excels in conveying his magnetism, energy, hypocrisy and loneliness. The concert set-pieces are wildly performed (if tamely shot), and the script deftly handles the shifts between Brown’s manic highs and depressive lows.
His relationship with anodyne bandmate Bobby Byrd, his only friend, is sensitively written. But the film’s greatest asset is Chadwick Boseman (last seen playing Jackie Robinson in 42), whose flamboyant central performance will keep you watching even when the story sags.
Neither a piece of sycophantic whitewashing like last year’s Jobs, nor an engagingly nuanced study like last month’s Mr. Turner, Get On Up will please the fan and divert the layman, but no more than that. But then, that’s precisely what many music biopics have done since Ray revived the genre a decade ago. And like that film, this one is set to launch a new star who can sing, dance and act his funky socks off.

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