The life of James Brown, the legendary funk-soul pioneer, was anything but tidy: three marriages, nine acknowledged children, problems with drugs, guns and taxes. Over his roughly 50-year career, he changed personae almost as often as David Bowie, calling himself Mr. Dynamite, Godfather of Soul and Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk. By the time he died on Christmas Day of 2006, Brown had influenced countless musical genres, but especially hip-hop: His "Funky Drummer" may be the most-sampled track in history.
Tate Taylor's biopic "Get on Up" turns Brown's life into an even bigger mess. At its center is an impressive physical performance by Chadwick Boseman ("42"), playing Brown from the ages of 16 to 60. Whether as a sinewy teenager or a pomaded elder statesman, Boseman has Brown down. Nelsan Ellis, as Brown's devoted sideman Bobby Byrd, gives the movie its emotional heart, but both actors are lost in this wildly disorganized, nearly incoherent movie.
Determined not to repeat the well-worn biopic formula, "Get on Up" plays tricks with chronology and reality. Out of the gate, the movie skips from 1988 to 1968 to Brown's Depression-era childhood (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer play his mother and aunt), then back to a cusp-of-fame television appearance in 1964 (Dan Aykroyd plays his manager, Ben Bart). Having Brown address the camera -- a jarring ploy already used in Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys" -- only adds to the confusion.
In the end, the movie hits the same old beats anyway -- the rough youth, the fast rise, the price of fame -- just out of order and stripped of context. Meanwhile, Taylor ("The Help") barely touches on issues of race and hardly ever shows us Brown's creative process. Only once, when Brown tells his baffled band they are all drummers (Craig Robinson plays skeptical saxophonist Maceo Parker), do we glimpse the genius behind "the groove."
As a final complaint, how could a James Brown movie have so little sex in it? Jill Scott and Tika Sumpter skitter in and out as love interests, but otherwise all the sweat is on the stage. "Get on Up" feels like the opposite of its subject: no rhythm and very little soul.
PLOT The life, times and music of the legendary James Brown.
RATING PG-13 (language, violence, drug use)
CAST Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis
BOTTOM LINE A physically adept performance from Boseman ("42"), but he's trapped in a jumbled movie with no rhythm and little soul.