Director: Tate Taylor
Imagine Entertainment/Jagged Films/Wyolah Films
This James Brown biopic has been on the cards a while – and then it just seemed to arrive, no real fanfare. And it’s hard to know what to say really – for is it a fairly typical, mostly terrible biopic? And are all Hollywood-infused music biopics so dumbed down these days? The answer is likely yes in both cases – but also any argument that this film was anything less than bad gets taken up with the smoke’n’mirrors talk of a wonderful performance from lead actor Chadwick Boseman. Yes, he’s not terrible. But his being good mostly just wallpapers over the film being so close to terrible. And also the line-up of biopics to compare it to is so woeful that this comes out rose-smelling and nearly vibrant – did you ever see that Hendrix turkey? Good lord that was awful. Is this film good because that one was so bad?
Actually Get On Up is really quite similar to Ray – not just for the performance overshadowing the film and covering up the holes and absurdities (just as Jamie Foxx’s rendition of Ray Charles did in that film). Like Ray, Get On Up means well and aims to cover a lot of ground and makes the huge mistake of not just focusing on a memoir-styled moment, or small series of key moments, we’re plunged instead into a survey of the career – and this ends up pissing on the legacy and passing over too much of the music.
At least they had the rights to the music – that almost saves (parts of) this film. Boseman has the swagger, an insouciance at times and that steely focus at others – but where are the drugs? There’s no need in showing Brown in all his punch-drunk glory (which the film never quite does anyway, only hints) if we’re going to not see the lines and lines of coke that are as important in understanding his story as his revelations around traditionally melodic instruments helping to lead in creating his thick funk rhythms.
The tricky subjects – wife-beating and drugs, an interminable recklessness and a nasty control-freak persona – are all absent here. (There’s one off-camera slug and tumble). Missing too are the moments where an extravagant, passionate, gift-giving, charmer was both a musical pioneer and civil rights campaigner. The script ticks off some key moments – The Night James Brown Saved Boston; preventing riot – but these are all just driven-by, backed up to, offloaded. It’s a scenic tour with Boseman doing his best to be the scene-stealer but not much sticks. Hardly any of it is given the chance to.
At nearly two and a half hours not a whole lot happens actually – a couple of neat musical performances, but the script is too busy thinking its clever with annoying jump-arounds and leaps back and forth across the timeline and a cameo by The Rolling Stones, waiting side of stage to headline after a Brown performance, is seemingly only there because Mick Jagger is the film’s producer. It’s an ugly pat-yourself-on-the-back moment.
And how sad that the film about The Godfather of Soul seems to lack that very ingredient – no soul here and we don’t really get anything of Brown’s drive and motivations – but it’s being plastered on that he had it tough. It doesn’t match up – and dangerously it could even give people a really limited view of Brown. There’s no real urgency here and no feeling that Brown was – and would continue to be – a highly influential figure in music; that his music would be part of the blueprint for hip-hop, traced through rap music’s DNA. In fact there’s not even a mention of rap music despite the film galloping between the 1950s and 1960s and then on up through the 1980s to 1993.
Get On Up is actually hugely insulting to James Brown’s legacy, reductive and misleading. But as biopics tend to go – and hey, go figure – it’s rather good. That’s how sad the standard is. How far it has slipped.
If You Liked Walk The Line You’ll Love This!
And yet that’s about the nastiest thing I can say. Of course the perfect rendition to the audience that will talk this film on up.