2 out of 4 stars
Walk the Line and Ray set standards for 21st century biopics of pop stars. The inner lives of these signature artists were just as important as their music careers and the movies’ filmmakers never let us forget that. With Get On Up, James Brown’s biopic, the events of Brown’s life seem much more muted in comparison. Confusing direction and writing make the film ultimately flawed, though still entertaining.
Chronologically chopped up and rearranged, Get On Up explores different points of the life of James Brown (Jamarion and Jordan Scott as the younger Brown, Chadwick Boseman as the elder): his childhood in South Carolina with an abusive father (Lennie James), salvation by his “madame” aunt (Octavia Spencer), friendship with lifetime stage partner Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), discovery by agent Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), and personal life with wife DeeDee (Jill Scott) and their children. James Brown’s singular take on rhythm and style made him a huge star, but we are given a small glimpse into what happened behind the scenes.
And “small glimpse” should not be taken lightly. This film’s greatest fault lies in its choice of life events to portray on screen, most of which are much less important than the film wants us to think they are. Meanwhile the more interesting facets of Brown’s life are whittled down to mere Wikipedia articles set as dialogue. Yes, screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) have a knack for subtle humor and plot-driven dialogue. A keenly funny opening scene in Brown’s later life shows so much promise. But the collaboration between the Butterworth’s and storywriter Steven Baigelman (Brother’s Keeper) has let them down. The climactic scene and falling action lead us to believe the entire film was supposed to be about Brown’s relationship with Byrd, when any interaction beforehand merely showed this relationship to be a minor plotline.
The Butterworth’s screenplay was clearly meant for a more lighthearted film, a point director Tate Taylor misses entirely. Like in his signature film The Help, Taylor takes his material far too seriously and subsequently mixes tones. The whimsical editing as well as Brown’s dialogue taken directly into the camera successfully place us inside his oddball head. We see a direct parallel between Brown’s barrier-breaking style and his daring decision to break the fourth wall (though you really need to know about Brown ahead of time to understand this). But Taylor only uses a fraction of screen time to accomplish this. The rest of the film shows melodramatic snapshots of the harsh(ish) reality of Brown’s band becoming his backup and his disturbing(ish) domestic abuse. And the inspiring(ish) meeting between Brown and Little Richard takes what potentially could have been a light, heartwarming scene into SNL sketch territory.
In terms of production values, it’s a mixed bag. The costuming shows the glam of the period and never loses a sense of the grimy life Brown never shook off. The hairstyling nails the period as well as the pop style, while the makeup falls short. Many of the prosthetic contours seem too geometric and the surfaces too glossy on older characters, like everyone got plastic surgery.
Most of the period set pieces have been painstakingly recreated, although Brown’s childhood home seems a bit more dreamlike in comparison. Whether to give a sense of fading memory or not, this warped reality exists nowhere else within the production design and makes these scenes in Brown’s life stick out.
Make no mistake: Boseman completely inhabits his character, from Brown’s explosive dance style to his more nuanced carriage. However, he so intensely becomes Brown that we miss any kind of human behind the character. The performance becomes an impression with no life, no layers, no conflict. Combined with Brown’s quirky behavior, Boseman comes off wooden and uncomfortable, like he just got thrown into a retro flashback diner as a James Brown waiter.
Ellis tends to come off stiff as well, mostly because he never moves outside of his cool, confident persona. The always reliable Viola Davis gives her oddest performance to date as Brown’s mother, almost underplaying her character to the point where her choices never seem validated. She fares better in a late scene in Brown’s dressing room where she and Boseman turn up the dramatic volume a bit. Spencer does what she does best and provides ample comic relief as well as some gritty edges to a very small part. But nothing will prepare you for Brandon Smith’s absolutely breathtaking, dead-on performance as Little Richard.
James Brown led a much more interesting life than Get On Up leads us to believe. We need to understand the man inside and out to become invested in his life, and the director and screenwriters never seemed to be on the same page. The more artistically interesting aspects of the film make it somewhat enjoyable, but really we could have used a little more rhythm and little less blues.
Mark McCarver was born and raised in Houston, Texas and has been involved in theater and film since he was a kid. He spent the past few years acting and directing across Texas before moving to Washington, DC in the fall of 2012 to get a taste of the East Coast’s entertainment industry. Mark holds a BA in Drama from Trinity University and trained at the Syracuse University – London Drama Program and Shakespeare’s Globe. He is a company member with Half Mad Theatre in Washington.