Get on Up (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
9Jan/150

Get on Up (2014)

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Get on Up is a biopic about the life of James Brown, directed by Tate Taylor and starring Chadwick Boseman.

Sing it loudGet on Up is director Tate Taylor's first film after the success of 2011's The Help.  With these two films, Taylor seems to have established a routine that I hope he shakes.  He takes a popular icon of culture, the novel The Help in the former and the Godfather of Soul James Brown for the latter, then proceeds to tease out all potential complications during the transition to the big screen.  This approach was to be expected when it came to a popular novel like The Help, but for a film on James Brown it's damn near inexcusable.

Brown was a complicated person.   He was a man who embraced sex and drugs while speaking the words of the gospel, a public icon whose work stood for Civil Rights while he praised bigots like Strom Thurmond, and a lover of women who beat them badly.  Get on Up required some deft creative personnel to present these aspects of Brown in a cohesive narrative.  To its credit, Taylor wrings a good forty minutes of solid cinema out of Brown's life before it goes belly up.

The first forty minutes of Get on Up is so good that I thought Taylor had made something special.

The first forty minutes of Get on Up is so good that I thought Taylor had made something special.

Taylor takes a good approach to Brown's life in the early scenes as he eschews a straightforward narrative for a time-hopping trip through Brown's life.  This was a great idea, and led to some uncomfortable moments that highlighted the difference between Brown's status in America and other citizens.  One particularly damning sequence shows Brown in his later life performing on a late night show with a young Mick Jagger borrowing some of Brown's dance moves.  The very next scene shows the young Brown scavenging for shoes from the body of a lynched black man.  People could steal from Brown and give him little credit, but Brown had to learn to scavenge among the dead to stay alive.

The poignancy of those scenes gave me hope that Taylor would have the courage to match the breathless energy.  He constantly breaks the fourth wall through Brown, making the biopic into something of a feverish guided tour by a man who is uncertain what his life will amount to.  Temporal shifts back and forth in time are triggered by Brown's sense memory, another jarring and appropriate fit for the drug-addled star he would become later in his life.  Taylor's creative ambition surprised me, and I settled in for an enjoyable time that just didn't materialize.

Shortly after James Brown comes into his own at roughly the fifty minute mark, Get on Up becomes as soullessly perfunctory as biopics can get.  Each aspect of Brown's life is touched on in moments so brief that it seems Taylor could barely work up the energy to care.  Brown's iconic "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" is reduced to a children's anthem.  His musical genius is explained succinctly in his as something that, "feels good and sounds good."  All this is fine and positive, but provide no depth to the man.  He was alive, sang some songs, got into some trouble, and then played a show or two.

These sad stabs at illustrating his life come at a point in Get on Up where the limitations of the biopic are painfully clear.  Instead of the rush of nonlinear storytelling that marked the first quarter of the film, the rest of Taylor's effort reduces Brown's life to endless squabbling.  It's not fun, illuminates nothing else about his life, and is filmed in such a flat style that it's a wonder cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt managed to catch any energy at all.  The full force of Brown's intense performances keep getting trapped in medium to medium-long shots, imprisoning the restless performer.  There's little flow to the visuals of the performances, sending Brown on a journey all along the sides of the frames that translate less as an uncontrollable force of charisma and more someone who has trouble hitting their marks.

Boseman elevates mediocre material so well that I hope he can do the same in his upcoming Marvel Studios role as the Black Panther.

Chadwick Boseman elevates mediocre material so well that I hope he can do the same in his upcoming Marvel Studios role as the Black Panther.

What saved Get on Up from total dislike was the work of Chadwick Boseman as James Brown.  Boseman steps so completely into the uncontrollable energy of Brown that he's downright frightening at times.  His body shakes violently, neck straining as though every sound he can push out is his last, and when confronted with his troubled past he devolves into a scared toddler trapped in an adult's body.  This isn't the first time Boseman has elevated a film beyond its mediocre pedigree, and I hope that a greater creator (Ryan Coogler, for example) gets to work with him in the future.

Get on Up just shows what happens when the talent behind the camera is not appropriate for the subject in front of it.  Taylor's direction saps all the controversy from a life that defines it.  There's no hint of James Brown the social hero for change, James Brown the violent and troubled man, or James Brown the musical genius.  The James Brown of Get on Up wrote some nice tunes, played them for a few people, and then died.  That's not a bad life, but not one whose story needed to be told.

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Tail - Get On UpGet on Up (2014)

Directed by Tate Taylor.
Screenplay by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth.
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Nelsan Ellis, and Dan Aykroyd.

Posted by Andrew

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