No screenwriter or director could possibly tie together the unlikely, turbulent life of James Brown — Soul Brother No. 1, the Godfather of Soul, the hardest-working man in show business.
But maybe an actor could.
As though to acknowledge Brown’s brilliant and bizarre life, the makers of “Get on Up” present their story in a fragmented, time-jumping fashion. The man is depicted as an enigma whose erratic adult behavior connects directly to his rough upbringing.
This approach has its ups and downs, but at least it isn’t just the same old showbiz rise-and-fall musical biopic. By skipping back and forth in time, we get the idea that Brown never escaped the harshness of his Georgia youth.
Whatever the riddle at Brown’s core, Chadwick Boseman has his pulse. The actor played Jackie Robinson in last year’s “42,” and he gives another committed physical performance here.
Boseman doesn’t especially resemble James Brown, but he’s electric at channeling Brown’s crazy energy and strange self-possession. Even if “Get on Up” loses its way at times, you want to keep watching it for Boseman’s fabulous turn.
Don’t look to the script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth for the entire James Brown story. Lots of episodes are left out, and Brown’s love life gets reduced to quick glimpses of good and bad behavior.
For a through-line, the Butterworths use Brown’s long-time collaborations with youthful friend and musical partner Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and business adviser Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd). The latter is a much-needed parental figure, as Brown’s folks (Viola Davis and Lennie James) are far from ideal influences.
Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) knows how to generate dramatic punches, and of course the musical scenes are tough to mess up. Not only are “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Please Please Please” and “I Got You” killer tracks, but Brown’s theatrical style of performance allows for some lively re-creations — including Boseman’s spirited impersonation of Brown’s hot-footed dancing.
Brown’s vocals are used for the soundtrack selections, which is understandable. Boseman gives a splendid performance in every other way, but when it comes to the music itself, James Brown gets the final say.
“Get on Up” (3 stars)
A James Brown biopic, presented in fragmented, time-jumping fashion. The structure helps get around the fact that nobody can really explain Brown’s enigmatic, turbulent life, but the main reason to see the film is Chadwick Boseman’s electric performance in the central role. The songs (using Brown’s original vocal tracks) are, of course, killer.
Rating: PG-13 rating is for subject matter, language
Opening: Friday, Aug. 1 at various area theaters