First things first, this is Chadwick Boseman’s greatest acting performance to date. He completely transforms into James Brown through his actions and his look. You get a sense that Chadwick Boseman understands Mr. Brown and has done his research well. Nelsan Ellis, who is better known for his roles in True Blood, The Help and The Butler, co-stars in the role of Mr. Brown’s life long friend Bobby Byrd. Ellis didn’t let the bar drop and managed to keep up with Boseman’s performance, portraying a conflicted character that illustrates what it truly means to live in the shadow of a legend. The film explores their relationship and shows the ups and downs they experienced together to a strong effect. We also get brief but strong performances from The Walking Dead’s Lennie James, who plays James Brown’s father, and The Help’s Viola Davis, who plays his mother.
The story darts around in James Brown’s life, showing his humble childhood beginnings and his rise to success. We’re taken on a funk-filled journey through the key moments in James Brown’s life. Although many moments were great, the film suffers like other biopics by trying to fit in too many stories, leading to certain aspects being shorter and not fully explored. The undesirable side to James Brown’s life was cut short due to this, such as his troubles with tax and domestic violence. Towards the end of the film we are bombarded with key events in James Brown’s life ,and we lose the ‘journey to a legend’ theme established in the first act.
Keeping up the pace however was the brilliant soundtrack. Already being a fan of James Brown, it was great to hear so many classics, and getting a look into how they were created. Chadwick Boseman was able to captivate an audience during the stage performances, and it felt as though you were there hearing these classics for the first time. Contributing towards the impressive immersion of the film is the spectacular work by the make-up team, who transformed a late 30s Chadwick Boseman to a late 60s James Brown, managing to stay authentic without becoming distracting.
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