Fresh and stylish in its portrayal of the Godfather of Soul, this musical biopic is a good insight into the world of James Brown, his past, his rise and for such a towering figure in the realm of music I think this film compliments the icon fantastically. It’s helped by a breathtaking showstopping performance from the lead actor and there is unquestionable dynamic storytelling used in this film.
This biographical drama treads back and forth throughout James Browns’ life taking in his neglected childhood, teen crime and the waking of music showing him the light. James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) gets a shot to make it when offered a house and a place in a gospel group from Bobby Byrd (True Blood‘s Nelsan Ellis). Then with the eye and assistance of manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) James becomes a force to be reckoned with. Through the 60’s and early 70’s it documents Brown’s soul status and powerhouse influence on music, those around him and wide spread audiences.
It’s a well told story that is scripted by John-Henry and Jez Butterworth, that may mix in some fictional aspects but the main flesh of it survives leaving us with a lasting impression of how charismatic, driven and sometimes arrogant this music man was. The shake up in chronology is really effective and gives the biopic some edge. After a cool and atmospheric open we cut to James Brown in his later years kicking off about the use of his private bathroom. The film, more so in the first half jumps around in his timeline, but it works and leaves you seeing more to what made him the man he became.
It has some well shot pieces, the opening for example is slick and the shadowy interspersed spotlighted corridor paving way for Brown’s walk to stage is a superb opening visual, aided more so by echoing words that we gather are dialogues of his past. The near end as Brown is clapped and called for is a nice moment with flashes of Brown in different ages and scenarios also calling, a great way to show the character in three dimensional terms.
Music in this film is without a doubt stellar toe-tapping feel good sounds on every level. The film explodes with character and pizzazz through its music, to mirror the personality of Brown. Soul filled breaks and untamed exercises in dancing and funky shouts make it feel like you’re watching a live James Brown concert. The epic scale of the band, Brown’s precision in moves and know how of music is clear and his smoky vocals are astounding and this is why he was such a star. The songs he created were top form brilliance.
It’s nice to see this film not only focus on the trials of Brown as a person. Byrd is a fascinating man that I knew nothing about and seeing how he truly gave the Godfather of Soul a chance is a welcome fact divulged. Upon researching after seeing this film, I found out Brown only made it thanks to Byrd and the Famous Flames and not the other way around, which this film kind of glosses over. It shows them up and running already but it makes it look like James Brown gets them the fame when in fact that wasn’t the case. I guess some changes here and there are alright but perhaps the true state of his rise should have been done properly.
Chadwick Boseman is just dynamite unforgettable as James Brown. There’s little mannerisms that add to the performance. He gets the voice, look and singing down to a fine art, as if he really is the man himself. It’s a perfect homage and Boseman immerses into all parts of Brown’s shaky personal life to give him more than what could have just been a thin musical look through the curtain. It’s electric and absurd at times but his grasp on the role fits with the style of the film. Nelsan Ellis is a brilliant co-star and brings much needed light to Bobby Byrd through acting his part of strong and straining displays of friendship. He has feel good believable soul running through him too and though he is outshone by Boseman he doesn’t completely fade into the dark, he’s the grounded realism needed to counterbalance the more outrageous feel of the movie.
The bouncing through years may not be to everyone’s cup of tea, it may be a tidbit fast and loose with facts and its eccentricity may stretch somewhat over the running time but Chadwick is a explosive talent, the music is magic and it’s a great life to find out about.