Film and TV

At last, a smart film about the legendary James Brown

In Tate Taylor's subtly extraordinary James Brown biopic Get On Up, Chadwick Boseman plays the man who, seemingly just by willing it to be so, became the Godfather of Soul. Get On Up isn't a perfect picture; there are moments of awkwardness, little gambles that don't quite pay off. But it's one of those experiments that's both flawed and amazing, a mainstream movie that fulfills old-fashioned entertainment-value requirements even as it throws off flashes of insight. Boseman, in this grand yet gently shaded performance, may not be playing the James Brown; he's probably playing an idea of James Brown, the amalgam of life and legend that Brown himself so carefully cultivated. But it's an idea that rings with integrity, and Boseman and Taylor touch upon many things that we know to be true. We see longtime collaborators like Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) and Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) straining under his tyranny. We see Brown struggling with tax problems of his own making and roughing up one of his wives, DeeDee (Jill Scott); Get On Up isn't a hagiography. Taylor makes some extremely smart choices; most notably, he stops the movie's action now and then to have Boseman address the camera directly, always a risky proposition. In the first of these bracingly straightforward missives, Brown tells us, "You can bet your bottom dollar that every record you've got has a piece of me on it" — a not-so-veiled reference to his enduring influence and to the number of times he's been sampled, illegally or otherwise. Brown's message, channeled through Boseman, is that we made him what he is today, what he continues to be from beyond the grave.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.