Movie Review: Boseman channels Oscar-worthy funk in ‘Get on Up’

Got the feelin’: Chadwick Boseman in “Get on Up.”
Got the feelin’: Chadwick Boseman in “Get on Up.”

‘Get On Up’
★★★ 1/2

It’s a straight-ahead biopic for the most part, in terms of charting the rise and fall and rise of the Godfather of Soul, but Chadwick Boseman’s spectacular performance makes that more or less irrelevant.

And the music comes across like an electrifying, super-funky force of nature.

Produced by Mick Jagger, who no doubt helped put the oomph in the tunes, directed by Tate Taylor of “The Help,” “Get on Up” opens in 1988 as drug-frazzled James Brown leads a fleet of cop cars on a high-speed chase. That’s after lecturing a group of terrified white folks about bathroom etiquette while brandishing a shotgun.

That’s the fall, leading to an ignominious stretch in prison. Then the story flashes back to 1939 and Brown’s harrowing childhood as the son of an abusive Georgia sharecropper. From that point, there’s no place to go but up, of course, since young James was so poor he stole shoes off the feet of a lynching victim.

But “Get on Up,” to its credit, breaks up the chronology by bouncing back and forth in time throughout Brown’s’ life and, even better, making time for many, many performances along the way.

Brown was a one-of-a-kind entertainer, of course, and an extraordinarily influential figure in 20th-century life. So, even at 138 minutes, some of the key features of his life get short shrift: his political stances, for one thing, including his influence on the black power movement of the ’60s. “Get on Up” touches, at least, on much of it, but its main emphasis is on portraying Brown as a man who saw himself as a fateful figure who would sacrifice anything and anyone to live up to the greatness for which he believed he was born.

Again to its credit, “Get on Up” touches on the darker part of Brown’s nature (domestic violence, drug abuse, riding roughshod on musicians in his band), but only briefly and always in the context of a man driven by extreme passions.

For the most part, it’s a sympathetic portrait, tempered by loving snapshots of Brown’s family life and long friendships with his veteran sideman Bobby Byrd (Nelson Ellas of HBO’s “True Blood”) and manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd).

Boseman, who was also impressive last year as Jackie Robinson in “42,” excels at portraying the charm that was such a large part of Brown’s charisma.

That charisma shifted into an entirely different gear onstage, though, namely sexy, sweaty, more-soul-than-he-can-control overdrive, and Boseman has that down too. So much so that there are times when you’re likely to forget you’re watching a performance and accept him as the real thing.

Boseman has the ecstatic dance moves down, naturally, but there’s something a lot more primal going on here — as if he were being possessed by the great man himself. Who knows if it will be remembered when Oscar time rolls around, but he certainly deserves a nomination. And perhaps an investigation as an occult phenomenon.

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