Chadwick Boseman stars as James Brown in 'Get on Up.' (Universal Pictures)
There are a lot of performances in the James Brown biopic “Get on Up.” Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) fills his film with concert scenes of the late Godfather of Soul, appropriate for the story of a performer whose electrifying stage presence could power a small village.
The problem is those performances fail to ignite the screen. They’re flat and stagey, approximations of concert scenes that miss the passion and spark of true live performance. You’re better off watching a clip of James Brown on YouTube, and that’s the problem with “Get on Up” as a whole: It just can’t match the stature of its subject.
It tries, but the film’s scattershot approach doesn’t do it any favors. “Get on Up” opens in 1988 and bounces around to 1968 and then 1939. Biopics can be stale when told in strictly linear fashion, but “Get on Up’s” approach seems random, like it was cut up in the editing room, the pieces thrown in the air and taped together at will.
And the script from writers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth can’t make heads nor tails of Brown, a complicated figure whose drug abuse and legal troubles were considerable. Brown’s spousal abuse is depicted in one scene but occurs off-screen, one side effect of making a PG-13 film out of a decidedly R-rated life.
What “Get on Up” does have going for it is a rousing lead performance from Chadwick Boseman, who last year brought Jackie Robinson to life in “42.” Boseman is taller and leaner than Brown, but he slips into the role so effectively that he becomes Brown, physical differences aside. Boseman is at times mesmerizing, living up to the gargantuan task of playing the American soul legend. If only the movie were as good as he is.
'Get on Up'
Rated PG-13: For sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations.
Running time: 138 minutes