Chadwick Boseman Amazes as James Brown
By Skip Sheffield
The genius of soul singer James Brown was subtle. Take the two-letter word “up,” Brown gave it two syllables: “Up-Ah,” as in “Get On Up-Ah.” He changed the meaning of "up."
“Get On Up” is the title of a James Brown biography starring Chadwick Boseman in a truly amazing performance. It isn’t the first time Boseman has portrayed a ground-breaking African-American man. In 2013 Boseman was superb as baseball star Jackie Robinson in “42.” Although he is taller and thinner than short, stocky Brown, Boseman embodies his spirit.
Both Jackie Robinson and James Brown were trail-blazers. Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball. James Brown brought real, primal, flamboyant black music to the American masses.
James Brown was one of a kind. His dancing was as important as his singing. It is obvious Boseman rehearsed a lot to duplicate Brown’s gymnastic dance moves, including his sideways, feet-only shuffle and his leaping splits.
Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) explores the down side of James Brown as well as his charismatic stage presence. Brown had a volatile temper and a dictatorial attitude toward his band members and handlers. British screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth do not whitewash Brown’s less admirable traits.
Nelsan Ellis represents Brown’s abused associates as his loyal second-in-command, Bobby Byrd. Dan Aykroyd plays Ben Bart, the Caucasian Jewish manager who helped expose Brown to a wider white audience (and profited greatly in the process).
Brown grew up dirt-poor in Augusta, Georgia. His father left early and his mother (Viola Davis) was largely absent. The closest thing to a mother figure was his Aunt Honey, played by Octavia Spencer. Playing Brown’s long-suffering wife DeeDee is Jill Scott.
Little Richard (Brandon Smith) had a small but key role in advancing Brown’s career, as did Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Jagger is in fact a co-producer of this film.
James Brown was an enigmatic, contradictory man. I had the honor of meeting him at a press conference once at the Boca Raton Airport in the early 1990s. I humbled myself by sitting cross-legged on the floor at Brown’s feet. I was rewarded with eye contact and a smile from a man who obviously was not fond of meeting the press. No one can deny James Brown was a pro and a show business force of nature who channeled his energies in electrifying, unforgettable performances and best-selling recordings.