Get On Up (2014) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations
Running Time: 138 min.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Craig Robinson, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Brandon Smith, Allison Janney
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenplay: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Review published July 31, 2014
Great music and performances are likely enough to please most viewers who enter into a biopic about a famous musical act, but they're not necessarily enough to take things to the next level of great films in and of themselves. Get On Up is a case of a worthy subject, a mostly spot-on lead performance, and plenty of fantastic music, and yet, when it's all said and done, it's not much more than a collection of interesting moments that don't add up to a particularly inspirational movie.
Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help, Pretty Ugly People), the screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Fair Game) takes a couple of approaches meant to set it somewhat apart from the rest of the musical biopic pack. One is that the film is not in chronological order, starting with a 1988 incident with James Brown (Boseman, Draft Day) getting in trouble with the law after storming into one of his owned buildings with a shotgun. What's the significance of the event, as related to all of the life events that came before it? Not much, though it does make for a good mental exercise in trying to figure out what the main theme of the film is, if it has a main theme at all. The approach to this seems to be that this is the scene that will likely hook in audiences right away because it has an element of tension and potential violence the rest of the film lacks.
The other gimmick that Taylor employs is by having Brown look directly into the camera from time to time, as if to give us his real opinions at that moment of what has transpired. Sometimes he'll even say a few words to us. The problem here isn't that the gimmick is out of the ordinary (Jersey Boys, released earlier in the same year, uses the same device); the problem is that it's so seldom employed that when it does happen, it takes us out of the moment when we wonder, "Is he talking to me? Was that smile and wink for my benefit?"
This loose-hanging treatment carries over to the movie, as Taylor cherry-picks what kind of material to show and when, putting most of the semi-comical events at the beginning, filling up the second act with more of his poverty-stricken childhood in rural South Carolina, then saving all of the personal, emotional scenes for final beats. In between, there's a lot of James Brown's greatest hits, but the music doesn't really inform the drama in a very personal way. It also is a bit slack, uneven, and all undisciplined. Unlike Brown's music, which emphasized extremely tight percussion and horn elements to exacting specifications, Taylor lets scenes that don't merit much time except for their cinematic appeal (a harried trip under gunfire to entertain the troops in Vietnam feels highly embellished) to play out well longer than they should, while other scenes feel rushed, if not left out altogether. Instead of a potent 100-minute movie that highlights a specific aspect of Brown's influential career, we have one that is 140 minutes that dodges around like an iPod in Shuffle mode.
James Brown is one of those singular entertainers and personalities so unlike any other, that any attempt to replicate would come across as caricature. Even a phenomenal talent like Chadwick Boseman can't escape the feeling that he's doing an impression than embodying the man himself. At least he's doing a pretty good impression, even if he's way too tall to buy as the 5' 6" Brown, as Boseman nails the iconic voice and dance moves of Mr. Brown, even if he isn't quite good enough as a singer to substitute for the Godfather of Soul on the rasp-tinged singing, lip-synching over actual James Brown vocal tracks in a not-completely-convincing fashion. It's more or less a one-man show, but I do want to give kudos to Nelsan Ellis (The Butler) for a very nice turn as Bobby Byrd, Brown's loyal, longtime music collaborator for providing a grounded characterization to counteract the bombastic mannerisms of the star.
While the film doesn't exactly ignore Brown's flaws outright, it also doesn't delve too deeply into them. Brown's pattern of domestic abuse is mostly dealt with in one scene in which the violent act (basically a powerful slap) is seen happening just off of the screen. We sense that he can be a real selfish, egotistical, and kind-of scary guy at times, but for the most part, he is treated like a talented genius who didn't have enough naysayers around him to keep his worst personality traits in check. As a result, Brown is seen as neither likeable nor unlikeable, and without some other hook that lets us inside the mind, talent and drive that is the man and the myth himself, we're left at the end of the film not knowing a great deal more about just what kind of passion spurned on such a hard work ethic and need to get people dancing in their seats.
While as a collection of scenes from Brown's career it provides just enough entertainment to get by for those who are fans or even have a passing interest in the entertainer's meteoric rise to the top, what Get On Up really needs is a hook, a subject, a theme to provide the backbone of the movie from which to spin the rest of the story out from. We see him rise from poverty to superstardom, but we never get the true gist of why that is important to him. We like his catchy songs, his fast-footed dancing, and his show-stopper theatrics, but we don't get a clue as to why he makes the music he does, or what the lyrics to such songs as the heartfelt plea, "Please Please Please" meant to him. We don't really learn why he took up drugs (in fact, this aspect is all but completely left out), what motivated him to consistently undercut his band mates, or what motivation had spurned his violent outburst with a shotgun the film opens with. In other words, despite getting to see lots of bits of Brown's life, we don't quite get the sense of who he really is by the end of the film, and that's a pretty sizable liability for a project that explores a man's like for 2 hours and 20 minutes of film time.
Nevertheless, even with its length, its lack of tight focus, its murky adherence to themes, and a general lack of truly profound impact, Get On Up still has its performances and music to admire. If you're a James Brown aficionado, or just like the soundtrack, chances are that it will still entertain, even if you won't exactly fully "get up, get into it, get involved" with Get On Up.
©2014 Vince Leo