Get On Up doesn’t know how good Chadwick Boseman is. Bursting with energy, filled with soul and one-hundred-and-sixty-nine percent committed, Boseman is a firecracker. Hell, he’s straight dynamite. How appropriate that he plays the man they once called Mr. Dynamite. It’s a certifiable shame then that the movie that surrounds Boseman’s accomplished concerto of a performance is overstuffed, poorly edited and, like the king of soul himself, doesn’t know when to quit.
Tate Taylor‘s (The Help) second feature starts, as all musical biopics apparently must, with the long, lonely saunter up to a final show of sorts. Old and beleaguered with regret, the icon is but a silhouette dwarfed by the enormity of a vacant hallway. Cut to Old Man Brown quite apparently hopped up on something of the Schedule 1 variety ranting at a room full of bootstraps-business folks and waving a shotgun over his head. This made-up Boseman’s all gums and shades but the scene only manages to paint the man as a Looney Tune.
Cut to bedazzled, toe-tapping Brown all get-up and no humility barking at a press conference. Cut to 6-year old Brown and his backwoods family eking by in some pinewood shanty. His momma turns to prostitution and his daddy beats him raw. All he wants is a lullaby. Cut to a teenage Brown stealing a three-piece suit and getting five to 13 years for it. Cut some more.
Cut, rinse, repeat. Cut, rinse, repeat. It allows for some mighty good scenes but makes for some mighty long-winded ones too. And while there’s lots rave-worthy stuck in there like gummies in a Cadbury Black Forest bar, the convoluted mess that is traveling from one scene to the next is an exercise in reckless abandon.
If only the editors had the good sense to slash 30 minutes of the film, we could have been dealing with something great. Had he tightened it up like Brown did his facial skin around the 90s, Taylor might have been working towards a gold statue nomination. Trim the fat, Tate. Trim the fat.
As is, Get On Up is a mostly pleasing patchwork of scenes that each contribute to a time, a place, and a feeling that then gets all that jumbled up and mismatched. Elephant heads end up on rhino bodies. A scene where friends feud with no sign of respite fades into them being immeasurably close confidantes. It’s not that we’re not smart enough to connect the dots, it’s that we shouldn’t be forced to do that work for Taylor and co. It’s like watching someone try to piece a puzzle together with one bright, shining star at its center; a star so massive and so bright, it apparently blinds, distorts and sucks in everything around it.
And boy oh boy is Boseman a star. As the one, the only James Brown, he’s surpassed impersonation, he’s transcended imitation. He lives and breathes James Brown. Every rubbery dance move, every superhuman split is Brown’s. That sagging eye and sneering falsetto; bonafide Brown. His salt-and-pepper speech crackles like a record player. I can’t tell if he’s actually singing or just doing the world’s best lip-synching. In all aspects, he’s Brown reborn.
Usually cloaked in beads of sweat, the character even gestures towards the camera every once in a while, occasionally monologuing in head-shaking fourth-wall breakage, but Boseman’s so catastrophically good that you actually welcome it. And props to the makeup team who for once hit the nail on the head when they age the 32-year old talent well past his prime. He doesn’t look the flour-face abomination that is Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar. But then again, Brown 55-year old visage looked like a drooping eggplant anyways. He’s a supernova but he’s paying the hefty price of admission for it. You can’t be a sun and not get burned.
But again and again, we must reckon with the fact that Boseman is merely the Shamu to Get On Up‘s Sea World. He’s a mighty presence but you’ll soon discover there’s not much else to the park. His role in Get On Up is the equivalent of using morels to make a cream of mushroom soup. You’ve got the finest ingredient in the world and you’re watering it down with a pool of a blasé, sometimes even flavorless, base.
It’s as if the editors found his each and every scene too indispensable to hack so they just shrugged and left it all in there. But you’ve got to trim even the prized rose if you want to win the trophy. Taylor seems too scared to bust out even the measliest of trimmers and ends up stabbing himself in the foot for it. His repetition of form is so ad nauseum that you’d think the prankster was trying to rickroll us. But goddammit if Boseman is not his savior; his knight is shining purple sequin. He’s so good, I can’t help but hyperbolize some more.
As Brown, Boseman’s got the magnetism of Tom Cruise, the jitters of Jagger, the paranoia of Scarface, the drive of Jordan Belfort and the moves that only Brown can call his own. He’s plays the Godfather of Soul like a black Marlon Brando. Commitment is his cup of tea. You believe it when he tells you he feels good. He even manages to dance circles around Academy Award-nominated co-stars Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis. And how perfectly suiting for a story about a man who the world could never keep up with.
And as much as it’s the story of Brown’s triumph, it’s also the story of his defeat. About his pride getting in the way of friends and family. About his shark and minnow relationship with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and how that would become the defining relationship in a string of failed ones. After all, you can move a million miles a minute but what’s all that fancy footwork worth if you don’t have anyone to share it with at the end of the day?