Tate Taylor's unconventional James Brown biopic chronicles the chaotic life of the Godfather of Soul -- but not in any chronological order.
It begins with the incident that led to Brown's arrest following a 1988 high-speed police chase and then cuts to reveal sequences from his childhood in a shack in the backwoods of South Carolina, where he was abused by his father (Lennie James) and deserted by his mother (Viola Davis), leaving him in the care of a paternal aunt (Octavia Spencer), a brothel madam.
During these jumbled flashbacks, Brown breaks the so-called fourth wall, addressing the audience to express his innermost feelings.
Not surprisingly, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) grows into a life of petty crime. Arrested in Toccoa, Ga., for stealing a man's three-piece suit from a car, he sings at a gospel concert for penitentiary inmates. His innate talent so impresses Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the front man for the Famous Flames, that he persuades his mother to allow Brown to move in with them when he's on parole. Joining up with promoter Ben Bart (Dan Akyroyd), the rest is musical history.
Awkwardly scripted by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth from a story by Steven Baigelman, it's briskly directed by Taylor ("The Help"), whose biggest coup was casting charismatic Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in "42." Boseman is brilliant, energetically re-creating Brown's strut, swagger and rubber-legged shimmy, including his spectacular splits.
The filmmakers' problem lies with focus and making the contradictions in Brown's personal life palatable, including roughing up DeeDee (Jill Scott), one of his wives. Known as the hardest working man in show business, James Brown was totally self-made, influencing a generation of hip-hop R&B singers-dancers like Michael Jackson, Prince, Usher and Chris Brown. But his ego was colossal. Few could address him by his first name, his temper tantrums were legendary and his drug-addled paranoia eventually did him in.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Get On Up" is a swingin' but scrambled 6. Lacking cohesion, it never quite finds its rhythm.