Trying as hard as possible can be the most valuable asset an artist possesses or it can be a liability. For James Brown, known as the "hardest working man in show business" to his nearly ubiquitous adherents, maximum effort clearly yielded the greatest rewards. Brown held almost impossibly high expectations for himself and for his musicians; he even went as far as to fine band members for playing off beat, refusing to follow his directions or committing other infractions. As a result, he crafted an innovative, vibrant funk groove that transcends its era.
It's therefore ironic that "Get On Up," Tate Taylor's newly released James Brown biopic, gains appeal in part by not trying too hard. James Brown's life was so darkly rich that it would take someone like Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola in his prime to come close to fully capturing it. Rather than let itself get bogged down in a pretentious display of over-ambition, however, "Get On Up" succeeds in providing an entertaining representation of Brown's rise to stardom. That's not to say anyone slacks off in this movie, especially on the acting front. The film marks Chadwick Boseman's second leading role in a biopic in as many years. As Jackie Robinson in last year's "42," Boseman bore a strong physical resemblance to the late Brooklyn Dodgers trailblazer but couldn't elevate himself beyond the confines of a thinly written script.
The screenplay of "Get On Up" doesn't have that problem. Boseman evokes the magnetism that gave Brown such a strong stage presence and commanding personality, and yet refuses to drift into caricature. That's not an easy task. Perhaps the most famous prior portrayal of Brown comes in the form of a nearly two-minute-long Eddie Murphy Saturday Night Live skit in which Murphy's Brown prepares to dip himself into a "celebrity hot tub." Boseman doesn't impersonate Brown so much as embody what the film sees him to be; his raspy voice seems more authentic than contrived. As for the directing, Tate Taylor's name is not nearly as recognizable as his most famous effort to date: "The Help." "Get On Up" employs the same brand of wit that made Taylor's earlier film a hit with audiences and Oscar voters, but avoids the racial condescension that earned "The Help" some degree of criticism.
Rest assured, "Get On Up" does not come off as hackneyed as its trailers and TV spots suggest. Sure, its narrative at times lacks the tight punch of the subject's music. But the film masks its clichés with a refreshing non-linear format, which jolts viewers but doesn't jar or confuse them.
The film doesn't shy away from revealing Brown's less flattering characteristics. We see Brown beat his second wife, drawing a sinister and all too potent comparison to the way Brown's father abused him and his mother (Viola Davis). When we see Boseman's heavily made up face in his later years as he smokes what appears to be PCP, the prosthetics come off as more haunting than cheesy. In that manner, "Get On Up" recalls the narrative arc of "Goodfellas," reveling in Brown's excesses but not pulling any punches in depicting its consequences. "Get On Up" lacks the overwhelming vigor of "Goodfellas," but the film never provides a boring moment. Overall, "Get On Up" stands as an admirable effort at chronicling the enigmatic essence of the Godfather of Soul. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language and violent situations. Two hours, 18 minutes.