Sunday, August 24, 2014

Get On Up

Grade: 33/C-

Even before they were so indelibly parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, musical biopics were usually shapeless affairs that reduced whole careers and personalities to troubled genius templates, bonus points if their problems could be explained by childhood trauma. But even if Ray or Walk the Line had facile explanations for what made Ray Charles and Johnny Cash who they were, at least they attempted to have some sort of narrative throughline. The same can’t be said for Tate Taylor’s James Brown biopic Get On Up, which doesn’t seem to have any idea of what it wants to say about Brown’s music, his ego or his personal life.

The film follows Brown (Chadwick Boseman) from his beginning as an impoverished kid and troubled teenager to an up-and-coming musician with the Famous Flames. Brown’s clearly the star, so King Records changes the band to “James Brown and His Famous Flames,” forcing all but the loyal Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) to quit. Brown continues to test the patience of his musicians with his egotism and his poor treatment of them, all while conquering the musical world and making great strides for African-Americans. His personal life is a mess, too, with his marriages crumbling and Brown sliding into drug abuse after the death of his son in a car accident.

Like The Help, director Tate Taylor’s deeply patronizing previous film, Get On Up isn’t a cohesive narrative so much as it’s a bunch of events strung together with no clear rhyme or reason. Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth start the film with Brown’s infamous incident where he fired a shotgun into the ceiling of his strip mall, only to go directly to Brown and his band traveling to and performing in Vietnam. They then cut to Brown playing before and upstaging The Rolling Stones at The T.A.M.I. Show, then to Brown meeting Byrd in prison, then forming The Famous Flames following advice from Little Richard, then back to his childhood where he’s inspired by a funky band to win a boy’s boxing match (seriously). Just when this needlessly achronological approach starts to feel really enervating, they switch to a chronological approach when Brown and co. and signed to King Records, which only makes the earlier approach feel more pointless and slapdash.

What’s bizarre is that the episodes are simultaneously disconnected narratively and monotonous. Brown behaves badly, only to be validated when he displays some sort of genius immediately afterwards. Here he is treating his musicians like shit, but it’s OK because he’s explaining why “Cold Sweat” needs to be off-beat to work. There he is being a jackass to them again and refusing to pay on time, but it’s OK because he and Byrd have more great music to make together. Rinse, repeat. It seems to be going for a “he was a complicated man” narrative, but it mostly works to undersell his difficulty. That’s a constant tonal problem, which gets more uncomfortable when Brown is actively abusive. Here he beating his wife, and now we’re going to have him strut out. There he is waving a shotgun around, but it’s played as broad comedy. Taylor’s choice to open the film on that note is particularly miscalculated, as it shows more interest in showing Brown the mess than Brown the musical genius. Its even more embarrassing whenever Taylor and the Butterworths try to play with race. You see, deep down, virulent racists just want to get funky.

Chadwick Boseman, whose intense focus and anger as Jackie Robinson somewhat undercut the piety of 42, is stuck here doing a James Brown impression. He never hits a wrong note, but he’s not given a character to play beyond a superficial caricature of Brown. Get On Up even fumbles its attempt to tie Brown’s complications to childhood trauma, never giving his reluctant mother (Viola Davis in fine form) the screen time to make their distance seem significant. Get On Up wouldn’t have been a good movie had this material been reworked – it’d be the same reductive move that Ray and Walk the Line take – but it’d at least have some pretense to insight about Brown’s character. Note: if you’re trying to make a movie about a historical figure, you should have something to say about him other than “Well, he did all of this stuff.”

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