'Get On Up' is partially funky

Matt Pais movie review: 'Get On Up'

'Get On Up'

'Get On Up' (July 28, 2014)

**1/2 (out of four)

When a biopic’s subject is widely known as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” it’s not asking too much for the movie to prove a) That the nickname was warranted, and b) The source of said man’s drive.

“Get on Up,” a safe biopic about Godfather of Soul James Brown, doesn’t do either. Played with impressive validity and agility by Chadwick Boseman (“42”), the legend (who died in 2006) sweats up a storm on stage. But director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) and the writing team behind “Edge of Tomorrow” fill in no blanks; in this story, Brown’s abilities required no development. His aunt (Octavia Spencer) tells him he’s destined for acclaim, which wouldn’t seem to inspire a work ethic. Save for one rehearsal, his songs and his bands’ remarkable performances seem to come out of nowhere.

Wasn’t Brown a complicated, flawed person? We see him abuse his second wife (Jill Scott) but understand nothing about her reaction (or lack thereof). Motivations float on the breeze in “Get on Up,” which is more concerned with getting toes tapping than brains working.

That’s good news for your feet. Brown’s influential material will hold up forever, and Boseman’s performance nearly makes up for the movie. He slithers, spins and splits with confidence—a legit fountain of funk. The movie simply gives little sense of where any of it comes from, outside of mere passion and an unhappy childhood (Viola Davis plays the mom who leaves him). As the increasingly egotistical singer begins referring to himself in the third person, “Get on Up” (produced by Mick Jagger) feels less like a chronicle of a man escaping poverty and family turmoil than a neutered depiction of a great musician being a great musician.

The film mostly ignores drugs, minimizes legal issues and captures neither life on the road nor Brown’s challenging later years. It needlessly features Brown addressing the camera (a la “Jersey Boys”) and leaps between time periods, hardly getting to know Brown’s bandmates (including Nelsan Ellis, Craig Robinson, The Roots’ Tariq Trotter and singer Aloe Blacc). Kinda like “The Help,” “Get on Up” is entertaining if you don’t think about it, or don’t care when a story of a layered man leaves nothing to ponder. Well, other than if we’ll ever see another artist so effortlessly wail and groove—and rock a cape not because he thought it was hip but because he was a musical superhero.  

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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