To quote the immortal words of James Brown, Chadwick Boseman has “paid the cost to be the boss.” The actor famous for portraying color barrier-breaking baseball icon Jackie Robinson in 42 delivers an incredible noteworthy performance as “The Godfather of Soul” in the current biopic, Get On Up.
At first glance in the film’s opening sequence, Boseman, a co-star in this year’s feature Draft Day, shares a striking resemblance to the influential musical visionary. The multi-talented Howard University alumnus’ silhouette emerges out of the dark, dressed in an all-red two-piece suit and Brown’s signature perm.
The product of the British American Drama Academy completely nails “Mr. Dynamite’s” trademark stride. With screen credits including Lincoln Heights, Persons Unknown, Cold Case, CSI: NY, Law & Order, Third Watch, ER, Justified, Castle and Fringe,Boseman effortlessly rocks an arching pompadour and speaks with the humorous (sometimes incoherent) raspiness, phrasing and ad-libs for which “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” is often lampooned.
“There’s a certain swagger and a certain power the man has that you begin to tap into,” says Boseman prior to the film’s Atlanta premiere. “You take all of these things with you and pull them out when you want to.”
Get On Up’s approximate 140-minute run time, directed by The Help’s Tate Taylor and co-produced by rock legend Mick Jagger (who is silently depicted in one of the film’s earliest performance scenes), chronicles Brown’s life with a stimulating but indecisive narrative style.
Unlike most biopics that pay homage to notable American musicians, Get On Up is told completely out-of-sequence. Those randomly selected moments from the original Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s career are stitched together to hopefully create a fully complex human being.
Some of the film’s stronger sequences are Brown convincing President Lyndon B. Johnson to allow him to perform for soldiers in Vietnam, keeping peace in Boston by performing following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, convincing his record label to record and release his 1963 classic LP Live at the Apollo and his hgih profile 1988 arrest.
The dynamics of the dictatorial bandleader’s relationships with hype man Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) as well as his first manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) make up a significant portion of Get On Up’s screen time. Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis, who portrays Brown’s mother, Susie, delivers Get On Up’s most poignant, misty-eyed moment with Boseman.
Get On Up’s major flaw, on the other hand, is its lackadaisical editing: causing parts of Brown’s identity to get breezed through at the blink of an eye. References are made to the funk pioneer’s entrepreneurial and humanitarian endeavors, which revolutionized black performers becoming profitable businessmen, but not fully examined.
As to be expected, Get On Up’s extravagant musical numbers are as stellar as Boseman’s performance. Each sequence uses Brown’s live recordings to recreate the nostalgia associated with “Soul Brother Number One’s” showmanship.
Of course, mastering Brown’s fancy footwork and stage presence are not easy tasks.
Boseman, who also played the role of Denver Broncos running back Floyd Little in The Express, dedicated five hours per day to dance rehearsals. The charismatic Anderson, SC native wasn’t quite sure about how much time cumulatively it took for him to prepare for the role.
Like an assertive Brown who is noted for his precise arrangements and rehearsing his band vigorously around-the-clock, the meticulous thespian put in additional hours of his own time.
“I had the time of my life,” says Boseman on the red carpet. “At first, I was apprehensive about it, but once I started, I just looked at it as you only live once.”
“All the pain and suffering is worth it, you only get to do that one time” adds Boseman.
Boseman’s co-star, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, who plays Brown’s guardian, Aunt Honey, also offers some insight on preparing to play her character. Like Boseman, Spencer, an admitted James Brown fan, did a lot of research and spoke extensively with family members.
The actress also says Taylor’s only intention for the cast was to “be truthful.”
“You realize you’re playing a real person, so you know there’s a responsibility to get it right,” says Spencer delightfully just minutes before Boseman poses for photos. “It was fun. I knew my character would contribute to the film.”
Screened in 2,468 theaters nationwide, Get On Up‘s opening weekend grossed $14 million: coming in third behind the top slot, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Lucy. Despite the legitimate controversy regarding the production team not including any personnel of color, this film will be a career-altering springboard for Boseman and Ellis.
Already at work on his next film Gods of Egypt, Boseman remains tight-lipped about whether performing Robinson or Brown was better. “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t answer that,” says Boseman with a hint of laughter.
One thing is for sure; Get On Up is high energy and definitely a highlight on Boseman’s filmography. “I was able to gain a skill set I didn’t even know I had,” he says. “This film is the gift that keeps on giving is the best way to say it.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.