Get On Up (2014)

Get On UpShortly after his mother (Viola Davis) leaves his father (Lenny James), James Joseph Brown Jnr (Jamarion and Jordan Scott; Chadwick Boseman) is left in the care of Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). Later imprisoned for stealing another man’s suit, James impresses visiting musicians The Famous Flames who pay his debts and sponsor his release from prison. Living now with band-member Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), James helps to raise the band’s profile until they are eventually signed by King Records. When James’ manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) anoints him the true voice of the group, and the label demands that their name be changed to James Brown and The Famous Flames, however, everyone but Byrd quits on the spot. It’s an issue that will recur throughout his career.

And there you have it: you now know more about the life of James Brown than I did going into Tate Taylor’s biographical drama, Get On Up. Of course, ignorance shouldn’t really be a problem on the big screen — films should be able to stand on their own — but in Taylor’s you immediately feel at a disadvantage. As the script, or perhaps simply the editor, ricochets around Brown’s time-stream, seemingly unconcerned by chronology or narrative coherence, you are left to piece together your protagonist from fragments as apparently random as a blindfolded wrestling match in the 1940s and an armed raid of his own business in 1993. It’s all a little disorientating — a fact compounded by Boseman’s occasional and unexplained addresses to camera.

At well over two hours in length there is admittedly ample room for such detours, but Get On Up lacks an identifiable throughline to deviate from. It’s woefully unfocused, ticking off iconic events in James Brown’s career without ever attempting to get to know the singer himself. Considering just how much time you spend in his company it’s telling that by film’s end you are no closer to understanding the man behind the songs. This might not be such a problem if Brown was a manufacured pop act unworthy of exploration, but Get On Up goes out of its way to show that this simply wasn’t the case. An incident at the Boston Garden in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination and Brown’s handling of it deserves more analysis than it actually receives — Aykroyd’s manager instead telling his charge to do what he does best.

Thankfully, Boseman’s performance is charismatic enough to compensate — perhaps the main reason that Get On Up ultimately comes out on top of John Ridley’s dour ode to Jimi Hendrix, All Is By My Side. The film is about as structurally and narrative cliched as they come (featuring the rise and fall of some miserable musician, bookended by scenes from an historic performance — honestly, it might as well be Walk The Line or even Inside Llewyn Davis) but Boseman manages to buoy it whenever he’s onscreen. It’s an incredibly physical performance, and some dubious lip-syncing aside he convinces completely. He has strong support, too, none more so than in the case of Ellis, who must justify to himself as well has his bandmates why he puts up with his position as a supporting artist. Taylor — and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth — could perhaps have done more to develop his character, but in the end it is Byrd (and wife Velma) who delivers the biggest emotional punch regardless.

You’ve seen this story before, and even fans of James Brown (or the musical drama genre as a whole) are unlikely to take much away from Get On Up. That said, the performances are impressive enough, and the music suitably rousing, to keep you reasonably engaged throughout — while also leaving you guessing just how Boseman might approach the character of Black Panther in a few years time. If only it were half an hour shorter it might actually have been enjoyable, too. After two hours you won’t need to be told twice to get on up.

3-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

One Response to Get On Up (2014)

  1. Nostra says:

    Agree that the way the story was told was a mess and I hated the moments where the character talks directly to the viewer. Sure it has worked on some movies and TV shows, but here it feels completely out of place. You should check out the documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston, which is pretty good and dives deeply into Brown’s involvement that night to stop riots becoming worse.

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