Director: Tate Taylor
Writers: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer
Release date: August 1st, 2014
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Running time: 138 minutes
Best part: Boseman’s scintillating performance.
Worst part: The jumbled structure.
Musical biopics commercial hits share one particular similarity – they gain significant traction by following a specific formula. Despite the quality of certain examples, these docudramas skate by on the success of the people/groups etc involved. Get On Up examines one musician, and the blues-soul hits he carved from nothing. Despite clinging onto several alluring conceits, this musical biopic is nowhere near as energetic as its title suggests.
Obviously, James Brown aka the Godfather of Soul is an inspirational person worthy of significant cinematic treatment. Breaking down racial and artistic barriers, Brown was a caricature and musician willing to transform his world. His songs, hitting hearts and minds from the 1960s onward, work their way into the consciousness like no one else’s. In addition, his work paved the way for everyone from Stevie Wonder to Pharrell Williams. So, does Get On Up do him justice? Short answer: Yes and no. Yes, on a performance level. No, because of the rift between its director and writers. For those unaware of Brown’s story, the movie chronicles the best and worst parts of his existence. The movie’s first scene comes off like a belligerent, Eddie Murphy-driven Saturday Night Live Sketch. Kicking off in 1988, we meet a worn-out Brown (Chadwick Boseman) in the midst of a concerning drug problem. After finding out someone had used his bathroom without his consent, Brown threatens the attendees of an insurance seminar with a shotgun. Looking past is peculiar event, the movie then tracks back through his better moments. With Vietnam in full swing, late 60s America turned to musicians like Brown to distract itself from problems abroad. Beyond this, the movie extensively applauds his fascinating success story.
Abandoned by his parents, Joe (Lennie James) and Susie (Viola Davis), Brown shifts from working for brothel owner Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) to jail time to singing gospel alongside Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). Tracking Brown from his troubled youth to his notorious 90s comeback, Get On Up painstakingly throws everything regarding his existence onto the big screen. In fact, director Tate Taylor (The Help) appears to be making a habit of wholeheartedly tackling African-American history’s most involving stories. From the opening hostage sequence onward, Taylor latest docudrama seeks to deliver a ‘greatest hits’ version of Brown’s invigorating legacy. Refreshingly, his style crafts several Oscar-worthy moments. In certain sections, Taylor examines everything from Brown’s extraordinary personality to his significant achievements to his deplorable brushes with temptation. This biopic’s shiny veneer is a testament to Taylor’s own guile and heartiness. Refusing to make big-budget dross, Taylor is a game-changer himself. Unfortunately, the material he’s working with fails to honour Brown’s unforgettable aura. As Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s second major screenplay for 2014, following up enjoyable action-thriller Edge of Tomorrow, their work copies and pastes entire sequences from similar musical biopics. Following a tried-and-true formula, their writing lacks Walk the Line and Ray‘s bright spark. Tackling Dreamgirls‘ structure, this rise-and-fall formula deserves a significant shake up.
“If it sound good, and it feel good, then it’s musical.” (James Brown (Chadwick Boseman), Get On Up).
In trying to reinvigorate this genre, Taylor and co. shuffle things around to fit a non-linear format. Delivering a convoluted narrative, this note-worthy biopic lacks its competitors’ coherency and depth. By switching up certain story and character beats, Taylor reduces its overall message to fit the Brown family’s wishes. Depicting a conservative analysis of Brown’s life choices, The movie, for the most part, leaves his problems with domestic violence and drug abuse on the cutting room floor. In addition, the race-relations angle is, bafflingly, picked up and dropped without warning. Addressed in small doses, the movie’s agenda restricts itself to, every so often, having minor white characters say the N-word. However, beyond the prickly race issues and stirring conflicts, the movie hinges on its performers successfully enveloping these parts. Fortunately, Taylor’s specialty resides in pulling brilliant turns out of stellar ensembles. Boseman, kicking off his career with last year’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42, is revelatory as music history’s biggest ego. Capturing Brown’s signature voice and mannerisms, his scintillating turn is worth the admission cost. In fact, his dance moves elevate the movie’s catchy renditions of ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’, and ‘Please, Please, Please’.
Handling Brown’s reputation with care, Taylor and Boseman succeed in delivering a meaningful and efficient biopic. Fortunately, as the narrative rises and falls, Get On up delivers several applause-worthy moments. However, despite the lead’s inherent charisma, the movie around him hits some unbearable screeches. Boosting this docudrama above the pack, Boseman – like Brown – is a true game-changer.