James Brown is a tough act to follow – or portray in a biopic. Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in “42,” does a commendable job of conveying Brown’s swagger, rasp, and calisthenic stage moves, but “Get On Up,” directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”), doesn’t do the performance justice. It’s one of those biopics that, instead of focusing on one telling aspect of a career, feels it has to survey every corner of the subject’s life. The storytelling is mostly linear, with some confusing back-and-forth in the chronology, and it’s a long slog. The Brown who emerges from this film has a monstrous ego to go with his monster talent.
He remains closed off to us, as he is to virtually everyone around him. As his longtime backup singer Bobby Byrd, Nelsan Ellis is nuanced, and Viola Davis, as Brown’s mother, has a powerful backstage scene with her estranged son that is the film’s highpoint – even if it’s plunked into the film jarringly out of sequence. There is no law requiring a biopic to make “nice” with its subject, but “Get On Up,” which presents Brown almost entirely unflatteringly except as a performer, makes you wonder why the filmmakers (including Mick Jagger, one of its producers) took the trouble. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations.)