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Arts & Life

James Brown Biopic 'Get On Up': Heroic Acting In A Disjointed Film


The last time actor Chadwick Boseman was in a starring role on the big screen, it was in a 2013 biopic when he played baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson in "42." Now he's back playing singer James Brown in "Get On Up." Kenneth Turan has this review.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: "Get On Up" presents James Brown as a perplexing and confounding individual. We watch as the self-created man maneuvers his way up from dire poverty to enormous success but ends up being especially hard on people who don't live up to his exacting standards. Listen as he puts his band through their paces.


CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As James Brown) Hit it. Quit it. Don't change it. Did I say change the part? Fellas, does it sound good?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As band members) Yeah.

BOSEMAN: (As James Brown) Does it feel good?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As band members) Yes.

BOSEMAN: (As James Brown) God made your years. You didn't make them. You're going to argue with God's ears? If it sounds good and it feels good, then it's musical. So play it like I say play it.

TURAN: "Get On Up" has a number of advantages, including generous helpings of Brown's high-octane music and a commanding performance by Chadwick Bozeman that's little short of heroic. The energy and intelligence the actor brings to his work pulls you along despite the obstacles the film structure places in his way. For as directed by Tate Taylor who had a major success with "The Help," "Get On Up" is more frustrating than fulfilling. It's a disjointed film that suffers from having a more ambitious plan than it has the ability to execute. "Get On Up" depicts all the major milestones of Brown's life. We see him abandoned by both his parents and then have a bitter reunion with his mother, played by Viola Davis, once he's a success.


BOSEMAN: (As James Brown) Why did you come here tonight?

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Susie Brown) Well, sugar, I live in Brooklyn, and my baby is playing at the Apollo.

BOSEMAN: (As James Brown) I don't want you to feel proud. I ain't your sugar, I ain't your baby - not here, not now. And I want you to tell nobody you're my mama 'cause me and you know that ain't true.

TURAN: We see all these things, but we don't get to see them in chronological order. "Get On Up" is anti-linear with a vengeance, presenting scenes from a life in what feels like a completely arbitrary order. That lack of focus eliminates narrative drive. It distances us from the story and hinders our ability to empathize with its difficult protagonist. James Brown was a man with an instinct for the spotlight and, Boseman's performance aside, it's a shame this film doesn't share that gift.

WERTHEIMER: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the LA Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.