By Charles Hallman
Any actor hired to play “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” in a biopic expectedly would be challenged at every split or scream he’d attempt in character on screen.
Chadwick Boseman demonstrated this as he played the late James Brown in Get On Up, based on the legendary singer’s life – the film hit theaters today (Friday, August 1).
“It’s hard to do James Brown,” says Kenny Lang, adding that it takes “a high energetic actor” to portray the singer. He and Sybil Lang saw an advance screening of the movie July 29 at AMC Southdale Center 16 in Edina. “I was hoping the story would have more on [Brown] up to his death [in 2006],” says Sybil Lang.
Boseman was superb in 42, but he played Jackie Robinson in his first season in the big leagues. In Get On Up, the actor played Brown in various stages of his life, from age 17 to 60 – his later years with makeup to show the aging singer: Makeup head Julie Hewett deserves mention for her work. “The makeup was amazing,” notes Sybil.
He looked like Jackie in 42, as Boseman’s portrayal of Robinson was much more believable than him doing Brown, which was not. It’s hard to believe that he mastered Brown’s moves in a short time span, let alone his musical chops for the film as the production notes claim.
However, Director Tate Taylor’s performance was more troubling than Boseman’s – the movie at too many times was hard to follow, with a back-and-forth chronological sequence used to show Brown’s life.
“James Brown had a crazy life, and we want people to feel it,” said Taylor.
Instead at times Get On Up left me feeling a bit woozy.
“They left a lot of things out,” says Sybil Lang, adding that she wished the movie producers would have spent a little more time showing Brown’s troubled life, including his oft-abusive behavior toward women. The film touched on this briefly. Both she and Kenny Lang had hoped more of Brown’s music, especially in his later years was featured more as well.
Get On Up also featured Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, both of whom worked with Taylor on The Help – the two actresses played Brown’s mother and grandmother, respectively. Tika Sumpter and Jill Scott played Brown’s two wives. But the acting prize in the movie should go to Nelsan Ellis, who played musician Bobby Byrd, who first met Brown when both were teenagers and worked together for 20 years, and twins Jordan and Jamarion Scott who played Brown as a boy. Their respective performances were solid, while Boseman seemed at times strained in trying to make us believe he was the Godfather of Soul and Soul Brother No. 1.
Personally I feel that there were too many loose ends in Get On Up: Nothing on how Brown transitioned from just a soul singer to an American icon, accepted by mainstream audiences, such as his role in The Blues Brothers. If Producer Brian Glazer really wanted to do something on Brown, as he pointed to in the production notes, he should have previously consulted Sybil Lang, who suggested that a nearly three-hour movie might not do the legendary singer justice. Get On Up or something similar work on Brown’s life easily could be a mini-series, she stated.
Finally, unless you’re a James Brown fan, which I am not, you could halfway accept Get On Up and its attempt to honor him in film.
“I give it three out of five stars,” stated Sybil.
This reporter wouldn’t be that generous.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org