Fantastic funk fills flawed film
Director Tate Taylor, who most recently brought Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel The Help to the big screen, tries his hand at true life material in Get on Up, a biopic of the Godfather of Soul himself, the legendary James Brown. The results are mixed; tonally, the picture is a bit uneven, but some fine performances elevate the proceedings, and the soundtrack alone is almost worth the price of admission.
Of course, from the beginning, Taylor has a problem on his hands: yes, James Brown (played here by Chadwick Boseman, 42’s Jackie Robinson) is a powerhouse talent (his songs have been sampled more than any other musician’s) and an iconic figure in rock music history, but, by all accounts, he was not a nice guy. Mercurial with his band, prone to tantrums, violence (including domestic abuse), and substance abuse, Brown isn’t exactly a sympathetic protagonist, and yet his story is the heart of the movie; we need to like him in some way.
To solve this problem, Taylor makes a choice to intercut scenes of Brown’s horrific, impoverished South Carolina childhood (abused by his father; abandoned by his mother) with scenes of his rise to success and fame, obviously as a way to explain – or excuse – Brown’s adult issues. Setting aside for a moment the psychological validity of such reasoning, cinematically, this mechanism comes across as somewhat simplistic, not to mention a bit heavy handed. Case in point: in one scene, Brown, after a particularly deranged, drug-addled violent episode, is finally pulled over by police. The camera pans to Brown getting out of his truck to face the cops, and we see his legs swinging out of the door; in the next frame, though, instead of seeing Boseman standing there as the adult Brown, as we would expect, what we see is Brown as a boy (Jamarion Scott, very good), looking sad and bewildered. It’s an eye rolling moment, and a bit of emotional short-cut filmmaking from a director who should know better.
Not to say that Brown’s story isn’t inherently interesting, though; of course it is, and once we accept Brown as the flawed protagonist he is, the drama is indeed compelling to follow. Abused by his father, abandoned by his scared and emotionally unavailable mother and forced to live with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer, excellent) in a brothel, Brown survived a childhood marked by racism, extreme poverty, petty crime and jail time, and limited education (he never went further than the 7th grade) to become a stellar, wealthy musician, a savvy business man, and a forceful social activist during the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s.
The narrative does suffer, however, from a choppy structure: Taylor opens the film with enough flashbacks and flash forwards to make your head spin. About halfway through, though, the film calms down a bit, and years and titles on the screen keep us more or less on track. But anyone who likes a straightforward, linear story may recoil a bit at Taylor’s disjointed style here. Taylor also occasionally has Brown break the third wall and address the camera directly, a device that felt stilted in the recent Jersey Boys, and feels equally jarring and unnecessary here.
What the film does have going for it, though, are top notch performances – both in terms of the music (Brown’s recordings are used throughout) and the acting. Boseman, who mastered the athleticism necessary to become Jackie Robinson last year, does a similar thing here; his recreation of Brown’s electric stage presence and brilliant dance moves is nothing short of astonishing. Physicality aside, though, Boseman also captures all of Brown’s nuances – from emotionally wounded to self-satisfied confidence and flashy charm to irrational rage and selfishness. And Viola Davis as Brown’s conflicted and distant mother Susie is exceptional; a scene in which Brown confronts her years after she abandoned him is harrowing and unabashedly raw. Davis’s fearless performance in this scene alone warrants an Oscar nomination. Other supporting players – Dan Aykroyd as Brown’s manager Ben Bart, Craig Robinson as saxophonist Maceo Parker, and especially Nelsan Elis as Brown’s long suffering friend, collaborator, and right-hand man Bobby Byrd – all turn in honest, rich, and full-bodied performances that help mitigate the film’s narrative problems.
As musical biopics go, then, this film isn’t in the same ballpark as more narratively adept pictures like Ray, Walk the Line, or even Dream Girls, but for James Brown fans – or rock and soul fans in general – Get on Up is definitely a picture worth seeing, if only for the Funk.
Get on Up opens today at Bay Area theaters.