How on earth is a movie about James Brown rated PG-13? The Godfather of Soul not only oozed sin and raw sexuality from the stage, but his life off it was one long rap sheet of domestic-violence charges, blackout drug benders, and indiscriminate gunplay. To be fair, all of this is touched on in Tate Taylor’s (The Help) biopic of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business — but with kid gloves. Get On Up too often plays it safe when it needs to be dangerous.
It doesn’t help that writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth chronologically pinball around like Ritalin-starved kids, never trusting the audience to take in the full sweep of the R&B singer’s life. In the opening reel alone, the film jumps from 1988 (a high-speed chase with the cops that resulted in jail time) to 1968 (performing under fire in Vietnam) to 1939 (his impoverished Georgia childhood). The best thing the movie has going for it is Chadwick Boseman’s live-wire channeling of Brown. With his gravity-defying pompadour, raspy jive patter, and quicksilver shimmy-slide dance steps, the 42 star sweats through a two-hour funk workout, belting ”Caledonia,” ”Night Train,” and ”It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” In the most poignant scene, Viola Davis, as the mother who abandoned Brown, shows up backstage to leech off his wealth and fame. Both she and Boseman are devastating. And for that brief moment, Get On Up shows us the kind of movie it could have — and should have — been. B-