“No one tells me where, when, or how long I can be funky!” A super-heavy performance by Chadwick Boseman provides the beating heart and soul of this James Brown biopic from The Help director Tate Taylor.
Filtering familiar stylistic riffs from Jersey Boys, Ray, and The Buddy Holly Story through the crazy-paved mosaic of Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script, Taylor’s rags-to-riches romp hot-foots its way around Brown’s self-mythologising story with energetic results. From his impoverished “Little Junior” childhood to international fame as “the hardest working man in showbusiness”, Brown is depicted as an untameable force of nature, whether wowing the troops in Vietnam, storming the joint at the Apollo or upstaging the Rolling Stones (producer Mick Jagger allows an “instant has-beens” gag) at the T.A.M.I show. All the while, wingman Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) is on hand to provide Greek chorus commentary on the singer’s increasingly autocratic stardom, as the Famous Flames fade into obscurity and the godfather of soul takes centre stage.
It’s stirring scattershot stuff, made with a fine eye for period detail and an evident passion for the music, which remains the driving force throughout. Former Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd has fun as Brown’s manager Ben Bart, and Jill Scott gives it some welly as Brown’s second wife, “DeeDee”, who finds herself on the sharp end of her husband’s jealous temper. Yet despite acknowledging such character flaws, this plays Brown as a world- rather than wife-beater, preferring to sing his praises in roof-raising, foot-stomping fashion.
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