Friday, August 01, 2014

The Much Better Than Expected James Brown Biopic GET ON UP

GET ON UP (Dir. Tate Taylor, 2014)

I wasn’t psyched about the prospect of a PG-13 rated James Brown biopic from the director of THE HELP, yet Tate Taylor’s GET ON UP far exceeded my expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s no masterpiece. It’s a bit disjointed, and suffers from many of the tired true-life story tropes that bogged down Clint Eastwood’s JERSEY BOYS, but it’s anchored by an invested, confident performance by Chadwick Boseman as the Godfather of Soul, and its concert sequences are electrifying.

Boseman, best known for his portrayal of another African American who made history, Jackie Robinson in Brian Helgeland's 42 last year, doesn't really resemble James Brown but he's got his voice, inflections, and definitely his dance moves down. It satisfyingly shows that Boseman has worked hard to step into the shoes of the hardest working man in show business.

Scripted by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, who co-wrote FAIR GAME and EDGE OF TOMORROW, the film bounces around through the decades with each year given a title like “1965: Mr. Please Please Please.”

After a beginning shot of Brown walking through a dark backstage hallway towards the sound of screaming fans (hello again, WALK THE LINE, and its satirical sister WALK HARD), Taylor delves right into one of the seedier stories of the man's past: his PCP fueled tirade with a shotgun in tow towards a room full of insurance agents, one of whom made the mistake of using Brown's private bathroom in his business located in the same building.

This incident bookends the timespan-hopping bulk of the movie which takes us from Brown's poor childhood living in a rundown shack in the middle of South Carolina woods with an abusive father (Lennie James), and neglectful mother (Viola Davis) to his legendary performances at Apollo Theater in 1963 (one of the greatest live albums ever) the T.A.M.I. show in 1964 (one of the greatest concert films ever) his riot-quelling show in Boston the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, his triumphant concert at the Olympia Hall in Paris in 1971 (another essential live album), and back again to his youth.

I so wanted to leave the version of Brown as a boy (played by twins Jordan and Jamarion Scott) behind, but the film kept bringing him back into the time-shifting narrative, even surreally inserting him into a later-day scene to make some sort of point that I'm not sure I understand.

Despite that Brown sang that this man's world wouldn't mean nothing without a woman or a girl,” we don't learn much about his first two wives, played by Jacinte Blankenship and Jill Scott, except that they had to put up with a lot of shit.

The movie focuses more on Brown's friendship with Famous Flames bandmate Bobby Byrd played by Nelsan Ellis (True Blood, THE BUTLER), and his relationship with his manager Ben Bart, 
well acted by Dan Aykroyd, who appeared with the real Brown in THE BLUES BROTHERS back in the day.

These scenes are fine, but perfunctory and the same device of breaking the fourth wall - i.e. Brown talls directly to the camera throughout the film - that JERSEY BOYS did to death, doesn't help matters much either.

But, again, the fact that somebody with the name Chadwick Boseman can capture the fiery force of nature of the Funky President in so many standout scenes is cause for celebration.

There are times when Boseman's Brown comes on like a caricature, but then Brown often did in real life. One only needs do a Google image search or spend time with some clips of the man on YouTube to see that Boseman does a really respectable job with the role. 

Sure, I would've liked to learn more about how Brown's saxophonist Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson), who had many complaints about how his boss fined band members for making mistakes, left to join Parliament/Funkadelic in the '70s then returned to the fold in the '80s, or spent a little more time with Little Richard, wonderfully played by Brandon Mychal Smith, but then we're talking mini-series territory and the film, at 138 minutes, is long enough.

But Boseman's Oscar worthy performance surrounded by a roster of some of the greatest soul and funk music (all the original recordings) makes for a must see in my book (or on my blog).

So despite its many flaws, including a very uneven flow, GET ON UP is about as good as a PG-13 rated James Brown biopic from the director of THE HELP can be.

More later...

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