"Oh hell no, I'm in a honky hoedown. We're gonna have to take this and flip it."
Doing a biopic on James Brown is a double-edged sword. On one hand, he was undoubtedly one of the most, if not the most, influential musicians of the 20th century, therefore he undoubtedly deserves the big screen treatment. On the other hand, his life and career spanned so many different eras of music, and had so many watershed moments, that it almost seems folly to try and portray them in one film. Nevertheless, the intrepid souls behind the new film Get On Up soldiered on and decided that the rewards of the former outweighed the risks of the latter. Did their gamble pay off, or would this be another missed opportunity like so many other musician biopics before it? Read on to find out...
It is virtually impossible to sum up the plot of Get On Up, other than to say that it follows the life of James Brown (Chadwick Boseman), but not in any true linear fashion. The film frantically jumps around in time, opening with Brown walking to the stage for a 1993 concert in Atlanta. In fact, echoes of the famous line from Walk Hard ring in your ears... "James Brown needs to think about his entire life before he plays." The first stop on the flashback express is to a 1988 stand-off involving Brown, a shotgun, and a mess of drugs. Then we're in 1964 and James and the Famous Flames have to yield the final spot on the famous T.A.M.I. Show to a band lighting up the charts called The Rolling Stones. Then it's off to 1968 when James and his band went to Vietnam to entertain the troops and almost got shot down in the process.
The film finally settles into a bit of a rhythm, flashing back to Brown's childhood in Georgia, living in the woods with a distant mother (Viola Davis) and an abusive father (Lennie James). When his mother abandons them, his father, unequipped to rear a child, brings James to live and work for Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) at a brothel where he's tasked with bringing in customers. Next thing you know, James is 17 and is being arrested for stealing a suit, landing him in prison. A concert in the prison by a gospel band fronted by Bobby Byrd (True Blood's Nelsan Ellis) finally sets James on the right path, and before long, he's off like a rocket to the top of the charts.
Throughout the film, though with very little consistency, James breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the camera. It's a conceit that suits this sort of film well, as it did in June's Jersey Boys, but with no established pattern, it feels odd and off-putting whenever it pops up. The film also suffers from an intense lack of focus. It jumps in and out of time with no rhyme or reason, and glosses over so many issues, that it takes on a sheen of a freshly manicured hand. It's as if the writers (who also scripted this summer's brilliant Edge of Tomorrow) wanted to cover all of the major events in Brown's life, leaving next to no time to develop any of them fully. Issues are raised and resolved with no explanation, such as when the Famous Flames walk out when they discover they've been relegated to also ran status on their new 45, yet are inexplicably back at his side in the next scene. Anyone not intimately familiar with all of the ins and outs of Brown's career will be left to scratch their head over how quickly things come and go.
Any one of these instances, in the right director's hands, could have made for a great film in its own right. Take for example Brown's concert in Boston the night after Dr. King was assassinated. It was, perhaps, the biggest moment of his career, and here it's relegated to also-ran status, sharing as much screen time as a bizarre dance sequence featuring a token white couple, played by Allison Janney and Pat Healy, grooving to Brown's music. It's not unlike last year's Lee Daniels' The Butler in that regard. It tries so hard to cram everything in, and ultimately gives no weight to any of it because it's on to the next major event before the repercussions of the current one can play out.
It's also interesting to note that the film features one of the most tone-deaf sequences in history, one which rivals The Butler's infamous disco suit scene. Brown, dressed as Santa Claus, hands money out to neighborhood children and catches a glimpse of a pervy neighbor staring at his wife DeeDee's (Jill Scott) cleavage. They go in the house and Brown wallops her (in the only on-screen scene of Brown's notorious spousal abuse), and then sulks in the Santa suit for a full minute afterward. Any sort of impact that was intended by the scene is instantly blunted by the comical juxtaposition of Brown as Jolly Old Saint Nick.
It is no small miracle, then, that Chadwick Boseman's portrayal of Brown is enough of a salve to cure almost all of the films multitudinous sins. Make no mistake, you're watching James Brown when you watch Boseman on screen. He so perfectly and eerily inhabits the role, it is an absolute marvel of mimicry that mercifully never overshadows his performance. This is a true powerhouse performance, and is worth the price of admission in and of itself. The rest of the cast is also very good, with the always reliable Davis and Spencer dishing out the goods yet again, and Ellis marvelously going toe-to-toe with Boseman throughout the entire film.
It's a shame that these terrific performances are given in such a dull and lifeless film. Director Tate Taylor proves conclusively why The Help was nominated for Best Picture, yet failed to yield him a nomination for Best Director. His work behind the camera is pedestrian in all the worst ways, and veers into first year film student indulgent toward the end of the film. Had Spike Lee gotten to make his Brown biopic, and utilized Boseman and the rest of this cast, this film could have been a force to be reckoned with. In its current state, however, it just feels like a mediocre film festooned with a collection of very good scenes.
Get On Up
does good by Brown. It's sanitized and palatable to a general audience, and hits every familiar beat a musical biopic should, it's just nowhere near as extraordinary as its subject, or its lead performance. Had the film focused its energy on an event or a handful of events, it might have been a truly great film. Instead it's just a schizophrenic film that has a handful of truly great moments scattered atop a pile of clichés. It's not bad, truly, it's not, but it could have and frankly should have been a whole lot better.
GO Rating: 3/5