By Will Ashton
Sometime between making his last two movies, director/white man Tate Taylor has decided to become one of Hollywood’s primary voices for black struggle. His first effort in this field, The Help, earned a handful of Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, among other awards recognition. So now he is bringing one of the most prolific black musician’s life story, James Brown, to the big screen with Get On Up.
As expected, the movie is a full-life film biography, searching into Brown’s troublesome childhood to his even more troublesome later adult life. With that, like many musician-based biopics, Get On Up is more a summation or Wikipedia page-esque look at Brown’s life than a full-on examination of his personality and his character.
Because of this, it’s, quite simply, a movie that’s just too big for its britches. It wants to do everything, and so, therefore, only provides a scattershot examination on Brown’s character. It’s unclear just what Get On Up is trying to say, or what it wants to focus on with Brown’s eventful life. If there is anything that it wants to examine at all, of course.
The best possible guess would be that the movie wants to focus on the rise-and-fall relationship between Brown and his long-time contributor, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). But the intersections in the story focusing on Brown’s mother (Viola Davis), or his personal demons and addictions, or his rocky childhood suggests that the movie just wants to include everything, so that no Brown-obsessed audience members go home disappointed.
Had this been a mini-series, this shotgun approach may have worked wonders. But in a two-plus hour movie, it is just too much. There are quite a few storylines here that are either too underdeveloped or sugarcoated (the movie is caged so often by its PG-13 rating) to work. If only this movie had a more focused and nuanced director than Taylor, then it could have been a more lucratively drawn examination of Brown’s character. Instead of a semi-watered down, by-the-books rise-and-fall musical biopic.
What really drags this movie down more than this, however, is the jumbled nature of its storytelling. Bouncing back and forth from various moments in Brown’s life, these intercuts sometimes offer some somber reflection on Brown’s character, but mostly just serve towards making the movie feel longwinded and uncoordinated. Making these juxtapositions all the more frustrating is that they often feel like they are without much rhythm or reason, except when centered on Brown’s relationship with his mother.
That said, however, the minute that Chadwick Boseman steps out on the screen, you immediately see James Brown. Alive, and jamming with a groove in his step once again. Although you—as an audience member—are fully aware that the actor is just a man in another man’s suit, Boseman is so immersed in Brown’s persona, his mindset, his mannerisms and his characteristics that it rarely—if ever—feels like an impersonation.
Boseman 100% kills it here as the famous musician; capturing his charisma while also able to subtlety explicating every troubled thought and feeling inside this puzzled and complex celebrity. Although he was effective in giving Jackie Robinson all the wide-eyed, gee-whiz sincerity to made 42 work despite carrying the amount of hammy-ness that could feed a family of six, he is tackling a whole other beast here in this biopic, but never appears fazed or troubled by the task.
This is a powerhouse performance. And, despite being released in a late-summer date, don’t be surprised to hear his name being announced at a couple awards here and there, at least at the Golden Globes. Even when covered with some of the wonkiest make-up this side of J. Edgar, he gathers up all the passion, the groove and the soul that made Brown the sensation he was. If only he had a better filmmaker helming the movie.
To put it bluntly, Taylor is just the wrong choice as a director for this movie. He lacks any sense of style, or any more of narrative coherence, to make this anything but a broadly drawn look at celebrity life. But he does have one thing up his sleeve that makes this movie worth the while, and that’s his playful approach to the material.
While he may not be able to give Brown’s life story the narrative attention that it deserves, he knows how to keep the tone lighthearted and keep Get On Up playful without ever getting too cutesy or winking. Considering how many times Brown breaks the fourth wall here talking to the audience, that’s saying something.
There are more than a handful of jokes here that work, and the movie gets the one thing right that it needs to excel at: the music. Whenever the movie is on the brink of getting too sour-headed, or on the verge of melodrama, a classic Brown song is just around the corner to get the audience tapping their feet or moving their hips in their seats. The scene itself may not have a single ounce of flair, but each one does what it needs to, and keeps the attention where it is needed: on Brown himself.
Additionally, there are a lot of nice character moments guided by a genuinely talented cast. As a one-time actor himself, Taylor knows how to direct actors, and knows how to make character moments work, just like he did in The Help. What makes them shine is that they rarely, if ever, go for a bombastic, yelling approach, but rather decide to keep things thoughtful and grounded, without slowing the movie down or dominating the movie’s pulpy tone. That is, of course, until the third act, where this all seems to go down the toilet as the movie crashes most of its spinning plates.
All in all, Get On Up is something of a mixed bag. But, much like Brown himself, it constantly finds a way to fly on the seat of its pants until its troublesome final moments. Even through its patchier, ho-hum moments, however, Boseman is able to carry the movie through thick and thin. In anything, Get On Up proves that, if Boseman is not going to be a Hollywood star after this, then the right people aren’t paying attention.