Get On Up

It’s clearly time for a complete rethink of the music biopic format. When a cherubic, large eyed child appears early on in Get On Up, I let out an involuntary groan. It was Ray all over again. But actually it wasn’t because the new James Brown biopic has none of the resonance of that fine film which admittedly is one of the icons of the music biopic genre along with Great Balls of Fire and Walk The Line.

Let’s start with what works. Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42 does an admirable job with Brown’s electrifying stage presence. He’s got the splits, the shuffles and that out and back thing Brown always did with the mike stand, down cold. If you don’t know Brown or his music, these scenes are reason enough to go to the see the film.

Beyond that, Get On Up is a mess. The opening sequence which cuts between a latter day Brown drugged up in Georgia, being fired upon during his 1968 visit to Vietnam and his tumultuous childhood in the South Carolina woods is a confusing, first year in film school disaster. From there the biographical bits which surround the musical numbers are often simplistic in the extreme, episodic as hell and in some spots, just plain wrong. Boseman, who plays Brown as fairly grim and humorless when he’s offstage, is hamstrung by a disjointed, overly ambitious, oddly dumb script by Jez and John–Henry Butterworth that tries too hard to pack too much into a 138 minute film and so reverts to telling rather than showing. A telling slice of Brown’s history, as opposed to trying to cover the whole of his life, would have been a better approach. The great overarching revelation of the film, “James Don’t Need Nobody…Oh Wait, He Does,” is a pretty thin foundation to build a biopic on. And again, Boseman literally speaks lines to that effect. Telling not showing: the sure sign of an inexperienced or untalented storyteller.

The lead actor here is however responsible for one of the film’s major problems: you cannot understand what Boseman as Brown is saying about a third of the time. Too many good lines come across as unintelligible. Boseman, who obviously stuffed his lower lip and cheeks full of something, whispers, runs his words together and does not enunciate clearly, none of which were an issue with the real life James Brown. While this device may have worked for Marlon Brando in the The Godfather, it does not work here.

Worst of all, at least through my music editor lenses, the film spends virtually no time on how Brown came up with his utterly unique music. In only one brief episode, a rehearsal in New Orleans—which not surprisingly is the best scene in the entire film—is Brown shown with his band, devising his deconstructed funk, which as Boseman mentions in the film’s opening scene, is a part of almost all the rhythmic popular music being written and recorded today. I can’t help but think that Spike Lee who was originally slated to direct might have done better. Perhaps acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney will do better in his upcoming Brown documentary, Mr. Dynamite.

jimtavegia's picture

Knowing all that you said is true, you know it will win at least 1 AA. That is how it works. The sad part is that too many who were not fans or know much about Brown will think this is the "true story". Is it better than no story?

As for the unintelligibly part, I have had a number of issues with the audio clarity part of shows recently, but not the DVDs, and the BBC's Sherlock in particular. The BBC Sherlock is a broadcast problem, but this, in the theater is not.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

I wonder are they going to show the real James Brown ... tormented, tortured and troubled? A pig who mistreated everyone? The idiot who couldn't stay out of trouble? The man his band mates hated? See PBS's American Masters "James Brown: Soul Survivor." Even PBS, which white washes everything, couldn't.

I don't expect an honest or accurate depiction of Brown's musical evolution from a history of music perspective. Check out the 2 CD box, "Roots of a Revolution" (Polydor), to see how Brown, almost by accident, blindly groped his way out of terrible, unoriginal doo wop and gospel to find his sound. Does Syd Nathan, the unlikely owner of Cincinnati's King Records, get any credit? Or is he unfairly depicted as some kind of white, Jewish slave master?

I disagree that "Ray" and "Great Balls of Fire" were any good. "Ray" was slavishly accurate about superficial details, but Foxx had no clue about the soul of Ray Charles, no clue about the amazing warmth, generosity, courage and faith Charles gave to the world through his superb music. Foxx is a cold, selfish muscle head. As for "Great Balls," Hollywood is too inhibited and afraid to depict the Deep South in other than condescending, simplistic, soap-opera terms (c.f., all those ridiculous, hysterical Tennessee Williams movies). The pasty, bullsh!t culture of Hollywood just can't comprehend The Killer.

Somehow "Walk the Line" managed to break the mold a bit, mainly because Phoenix and Reese just let go and had fun. That they actually sang the music must have given them intuitive access to the people they were portraying.

Of course, the pretty-boy, Sidney-Poitier mannequin Boseman won't and can't sing Brown and thus can't BE Brown. The savagery and gaudy sexuality of Brown, and the violence of his stripped-down, hypnotic beat will be toned
down and bled. His music will be placed on a pedestal, safe and far away, a fait accompli. They will run in fear from the fiery upheaval and pain of its creation.

Brown is just too politically incorrect. He embodies too many of the things African Americans publicly reject and are embarrassed to admit, but without which he couldn't have been himself or made his music. Thelonious Monk called it "Ugly Beauty." Brown is the antithesis of Barack Obama. That's why everybody couldn't resist his music.

But I'll still see it. I have to.

PS. See Brown's CD "Funk Power, 1970: A Brand New Thang" (Polydor). Brown couldn't keep his best band ever together for more than a year, with Bootsy Collins (amazing, revolutionary bass player), Phelps "Catfish" Collins, Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield, because he abused the musicians and didn't even pay them what they were owed. Who would work for such a schmuck? Will this movie deal with this fiasco, with Brown's hostility towards his fellow man, his self-destructive hate? Without this, his life makes no sense.

And when he died, he left his woman nothing. Will the movie tell the truth about this?

ZARDOZ's picture

I am totally baffled at your review of this film. While I am not a JB scholar and can't vouch for the veracity of the film, it is a great story. The bouncing back and forth in the timeline gives weight to whatever era of his life that is taking place at that time in the film. Boseman's performance in the film is excellent, and I had absolutely no trouble understanding him "off stage". He does speak exactly like I remember hearing JB in many interviews though, and JB was never known for diction. As to the lack of info on his music genius, maybe the little that was shown was because JB kept that close to the vest, and not many knew how his musical process worked. I think the fact that they show that there was always more to the man than people thought was extremely telling.
I think you owe your readers, and you deserve, a second look and listen to this movie. If you can't understand the music, like many music exec's at the time, maybe you should hand this review over to someone who appreciates the genius of James Brown and the story told. I feel that you have really missed a lot of what this movie was about.