There's no doubt James Brown was a musical giant with a bigger-than-life personality.

But I couldn't help wondering throughout "Get on Up," director Tate Taylor's new big-screen tribute to the Godfather of Soul: Could Brown's story really be this big? And did his life really mirror the rags-to-riches, good times/bad times, mythic, almost heroically scripted stories told in so many triumphant biopics?

Maybe not. But it is a movie, after all. A really entertaining one in which, unlike some biopics, there is no time or breathing space to ponder what bigger points about fame or America the director might be trying to make. Your only real option with "Get on Up" is to absorb the story at face value and go with its nonstop energy. Only a statue could watch this film and not physically move.

Brown -- played in fantastically over-the-top fashion by "42" star Chadwick Boseman -- is rightfully depicted as a force of nature in "Get on Up." That's especially so in the live music scenes, which are some of the most compelling and exciting I've ever seen on the big screen.

Taylor and writers Steven Baigelman, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, try to detail what made James Brown the James Brown. The film shows Brown as a child in Depression-era rural Georgia, with abusive father Joe Brown (Lennie James) and conflicted mother Susie Brown (played powerfully by Viola Davis, despite some cliched moments). Eventually abandoned by both parents, young, stoic James is raised by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). The early story clearly means to lay out what makes the adult James Brown the driven, passionate, talking-in-the-third-person Hardest Working Man in Show Business. But the occasional cliches in this story put some of the details in doubt.


Advertisement

The film gets interesting once Boseman enters as a teenage Brown, whose petty crimes land him in prison. There, he meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who becomes a longtime friend and stage partner. How Brown's sudden ascendance transforms their friendship and respective showbiz careers is easily the film's most interesting subplot. (A predictable reunion with his mother after Brown has made it big doesn't reveal much, other than that the increasingly dominating and demanding Godfather of Soul still has an emotional streak.)

Despite all the women and children and managers in his life, James Brown's best friend and No. 1 priority was James Brown, which, as the film contends (a bit too often, and with occasional oddly timed flashback imagery), was necessary for Brown to become a legend. (Dan Aykroyd plays manager Bert Bart, with whom Brown had a surprisingly good relationship.) Sometimes, the mythmaking pays off nicely, as when an unhinged, shotgun-toting but hilarious Brown chastizes a terrified woman for using his toilet and when, aboard a burning plane struck by enemy fire en route to entertaining troops in Vietnam, a smiling Brown tells the frightened pilot, "Settle down, Captain. You're with James Brown."

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Chadwick Boseman in a scene from "Get On Up." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)
This image released by Universal Pictures shows Chadwick Boseman in a scene from "Get On Up." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)

Whether all of this is historically accurate is debatable. What's not debatable is the power of Brown's music. The live scenes are so well-shot and edited that viewers will feel like they're sweating in the front row. This is a film demanding to be seen on the big screen to fully deliver the musical impact of a man who -- all apologies to Michael Jackson fans -- was likely the greatest frontman ever to grace a stage. I'm only old enough to have seen Brown play live in his 70s, but even then, he was something else.

Taylor deserves much of the credit for capturing the magic of Brown as entertainer, but just as much credit must go to Boseman, who not only re-creates Brown's explosive stage moves, but dominates every other scene he's in. Like the real deal, Boseman demands your absolute attention by the sheer force of his will, with plenty of charm and humor thrown in for good measure.

The movie ends in a burst of sentimentality, which isn't surprising, given its traditional biopic structure of a rise, a fall, and a rise again (though in Brown's case, it wasn't clear he fell very far). It's not terribly convincing, but sometimes disbelief has to be suspended for a good cause on the big screen. James Brown was a legend, and watching that legend resurrected so well is rewarding enough.

Contact Tony Hicks at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.TonyHicks or Twitter.com/thicks67.

'Get on up'

* * *

Rating: PG-13 (sexual content, drug use, some strong language, violent situations)
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Lennie James, Tika Sumpter, Jill Scott, Dan Aykroyd
Director: Tate Taylor
Running time: 2 hours,
18 minutes