If the undervalued satire Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story had been a bigger hit, then it might have proved impossible to ever again make this class of musical biopic. Tate Taylor's follow-up to The Help doesn't offer us a dead brother, but, in most other respects, his study of James Brown nods to the Stations of the Rock-pic Cross.
Brown comes from a poor background in the south. He suffers abuse. He secures an unexpected breakthrough, but ultimately succumbs to drugs, violence and self-absorption.
Yet, magically, unexpectedly, most funkily, Get on Up feels fresh and crisp as the Godfather of Soul's keenest moves. Taylor directs with modest flair, but most of the credit must be shared between star Chadwick Boseman, who almost makes something likable of a very awkward man, and writer Jez Butterworth, who proves that this wheel is still capable of reinvention. Beginning in 1988 with Brown waving a shotgun crazily about one of his properties, the script nips back and forth to reveal the invention of a new musical form and the formation of a most singular character.
Butterworth (author of the hugely admired play Jerusalem) makes no excuses for his insufferable protagonist, but he does seek out some sustainable explanations. There is a sense that both the best and worst of the man stem from a lust for perfection. This is how he honed the tight variations that have defined funk music ever since.
That is why he ruled the band with the firm hand of a military dictator. Ultimately, the lust for control poisons his private life and leads to paranoia and sexual jealousy. Butterworth allows just enough innovation into the piece to pull it clear from hackneyed convention. The endlessly charismatic Boseman is asked to break the fourth wall. In one stunning scene, following racially motivated humiliation, the young Brown, lying semi-conscious, imagines a ragtime band transmogrifying into a tightly knit funk outfit of the future.
The supporting cast is all top-notch. If you didn't already know that Brown had a largely benevolent Jewish manager, then Dan Aykroyd is here to confirm the fact. Nelsan Ellis from True Blood is very touching as Brown's misused colleague Bobby Byrd. Viola Davis, playing the subject's Ma, again stakes a claim to be regarded the best actress of her generation. But Boseman owns the film. On such performances are careers built.
Are you funky enough?