The film is not as stellar as Armond White’s review on the main page suggests it is—nor do I understand why he thinks it’s obviously better than director Tate Taylor’s other big film THE HELP,–but it is good enough, and it manages to be different from most any biopic you’ve seen. A straightforward narrative style is abandoned for jumping back-and-forth in James Brown’s life. And that life does not fit the usual 50s/60s pop music biopic patterns anyhow. Indeed, the film suggests that Brown was hard to figure and a hard man in general—not because of complexity, really–but due to a deliberate choice he made to stay on guard. The film in a way signals that we can’t get the full inside story on him, but this does frustrate our natural audience expectations. Part of the way it does this is that some scenes convey a lot of info very quickly, conveying, for example, the love-life info in mere flashes, and unless you’re very familiar with his biography, such incomplete glimpses will be initially off-putting. At times all this sketching and jumping-back-and-forth works, although during certain stretches, the whole doesn’t seem to be clicking, even if all the parts are.
My impression was perhaps harmed by the theater having the sound at a nice moderate level. You definitely do not want that! The many music scenes with the fantastic dancing are half the point or more. Try to recall your local theater that has most assaulted your ear-drums with explosions and such, and see it there.
I’ve linked it before, but here’s a fine little career-review and reflection from Martha Bayles on Brown. It explains why White does not overstate things when he says that Brown may be the most significant figure in popular music for the second half of the twentieth century.