Get On Up
2 1/2 out of 4 stars
With the notable exceptions of Sinatra and Elvis, there is no individual in the history of popular music more suited for the subject of a feature film than James Brown. With a professional career and personal life marked by incredible highs and catastrophic lows, Brown was a complex man who was a walking contradiction. A humanitarian and political activist but also a serial abuser of his family and musical underlings, he is any filmmakers’ dream project.
After watching “Get on Up,” it’s easy to see why no one has yet made an Elvis or a Sinatra bio pic — although many have been planned. In order to fully do any of these men justice, a feature film is not enough; each would require a 10-hour HBO mini-series.
For his follow-up to “The Help,” the Mississippi-born director Tate Taylor again looks at the lives of blacks in the South within a time frame that spans decades — with highly mixed results. Working with an otherwise solid screenplay written by British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Taylor makes the fatal mistake of employing far too much non-sequential sleight of hand where a traditional, point A to point B narrative would have worked far better.
The first 30 minutes of the film is a complete mess. In no particular order, Taylor leapfrogs from one event in Brown’s life to another with such speed and randomness that only those very familiar with Brown’s chronology will be able to make any sense of it.
The opening scene shows Brown (Chadwick Boseman) firing a shotgun into the ceiling of an office and browbeating a woman for using the bathroom in “his building.” This is not how to start a movie covering the life of a musical pioneer. All of these assorted snippets are revisited multiple times throughout the film but it makes for a lot of work for the audience — especially for those who know little about Brown going in. For the duration of the movie, the filmmakers continue with the multiple-fracturing of the narrative but it’s less often, with each bit of new material introduced with time-stamped title cards.
In spite of all of the stylistic overindulgence, we are able to glean enough to eventually figure out what made Brown into the man he became and to the writers’ credit, they include some of Brown’s more unsavory character traits. The son of habitually quarrelling parents, Brown was abandoned by his mother Susie (Viola Davis) as a child and shortly thereafter his father left him in the care of an aunt (Octavia Spencer), the madam of a gutbucket brothel that catered to soldiers returning from Korea.
At a nearby church, Brown gets his first taste of gospel music and the performance style that becomes his stock-in-trade. After doing a short stint in prison for theft, Brown is paroled into the care of the Byrd family in Toccoa whose eldest son, Bobby, (Nelsan Ellis) headed a gospel ensemble. In no time flat, Brown assumes leadership of the group, dubs them the Famous Flames and sets out on multiple tours of the Chitlin circuit.
As part of a record deal orchestrated by manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), the Flames are pushed to the background and offered jobs as salaried employees. All but Byrd decline. Now free to go in any direction he wishes, Brown assembles his first “orchestra” which he runs like a third world dictator. In addition to paying the musicians a pittance, he often fines them for missed notes, less-than perfect attire or anything else that gets under his craw.
Considering Brown’s voracious sexual appetite and reputation as a womanizer, the filmmakers all but sidestep this aspect of his life by giving it only lip service; the same goes for his multiple arrests for spousal and drug abuse.
In the end the movie is saved by the throttling performance of Boseman. Not exactly a close physical match to Brown, Boseman more than makes up for it by masterfully capturing his essence and demeanor, perfectly replicating Brown’s otherworldly stage movement and unique speech patterns. It will be very surprising if Boseman doesn’t nab an Oscar nomination for his performance.
In playing Brown, Boseman offers further proof of his depth and dramatic range and shows why many are referring to him as the next Denzel Washington. There aren’t very many actors who can play non-fictional cultural icons such as Brown and Jackie Robinson (“42”) whose personalities and lifestyles were so diametrically opposed with such fortitude and conviction. Like the men he has thus far portrayed on film, Boseman is a master of his craft and an uncommon force of nature.(Universal)