“Get On Up”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

Get On Up New Poster

“Get On Up,” the recent biopic about funk legend James Brown, tries to break all the rules. In this sense it’s a bit like Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” which treated the life of Bob Dylan as a medley of styles, attitudes, and costumes. Like “I’m Not There,” “Get On Up,” doesn’t have a clean narrative through-line, but it’s free of that graduate-thesis tone — that brittleness — that can make sitting through a Haynes movie feel like being in school. Director Tate Taylor and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth are out to nail Brown as an idea. Their movie is a sort of essay on the artist as a prick and egomaniac — one whose talent and drive were such that the world couldn’t help but slip into his groove.

I suppose it’s trite to describe the movie’s rhythms in musical terms, but that’s what I think Taylor and editor Michael McCusker are going for: The tempo is offbeat, and the manner in which the cutting slides us into and out of different time periods can feel a bit like syncopation. That’s not to say the approach is always successful: there are moments when the picture’s cleverness is apparent more in concept than in execution. But even at these moments I was willing to go with it, perhaps because I’ve seen enough biopics to be wary (and weary) of their conventions. The standard  elements of the genre are present in “Get On Up,” but they’ve been filliped, curlicued, truncated. We see that Brown gets involved in drugs, womanizes, and beats his wife — yet we’re denied the narrative effects we expect to flow from the introduction of these elements. At one point we see that Brown’s son has contracted impetigo, but it’s never followed up on; it’s not even explained. Does it need to be? We understand that Brown is an unsatisfactory father. And when the boy later dies in a car crash, our minds fill in the pieces that are missing from the story. That disease, introduced in so unexpected a manner, stays with you in a way a standard scene of neglect would not.

Many have complained about the unconventionality of the movie’s structure. For these folks the narrative beats of the biopic are like the Stations of the Cross: their fulfillment is an end in itself. They want to see the scene in which Brown suffers for doing drugs, in which the battered wife has her say, in which someone chastises JB for mismanaging his money or not being there for his kids. They want these scenes not because they bring them closer to the subject, but because they involve them in a ritualized drama that allows them to feel that the subject has been brought closer to them. Taylor and the Butterworths have, for the most part, dispensed with all that. Instead they’ve given us a movie that keys us into the various facets of ambition and talent — many of them thorny, even unpleasant — and asks us to reckon with them. The points the picture makes are disbursed; they aren’t organized in a linear, one-thing-follows-another fashion. It might help to view “Get On Up” as a scattergraph rather than as a biography. In some ways it’s closer to “Tyson” than it is to “Ray.”

The movie does overdo a couple of ideas. I grew tired of the callbacks to the actor who plays the juvenile Brown; they’re inserted into the picture whenever the filmmakers want us to remember the singer’s roots as a pauper and an orphan. There’s a sort of desperation in this, a sense that Taylor is worried you’ll fall out of sympathy with his subject. It’s hard to blame him: he is, after all, making a commercial movie. Yet it’s deadening because it contradicts the fast-and-loose bravado of the surrounding material. I had similar feelings about some of the scenes between Brown and his friend and bandmate Bobby Byrd. Byrd, who is played by the beatific Nelsan Ellis, is saddled with the Joseph Cotten role from “Citizen Kane,” and his nobility gradually becomes a bore. Fortunately, the character is redeemed somewhat by the wonderful last sequence, which has Brown plaintively serenade his wayward friend with a moving a capella version of “Try Me.” It’s one of the more affecting evocations of male friendship in recent movies.

It makes sense that Brown would make peace through song: The movie’s theme, expressed through its style as well as in words by a producer character while attempting to describe the appeal of Brown’s grunts and squeals, is that surface details are capable of conveying a deeper resonance, a fuller meaning. And the timbre of Brown’s voice in that sequence says all that’s worth saying about his feelings for Byrd. What is the meaning of James Brown? I think it’s to the movie’s credit that it doesn’t present you with one — you have to glean it from the details. It’s in the keyed-up dazzle of the editing and the sizzle of DP Stephen Goldblatt’s period images, many of which have the closeness and heat of vintage concert photographs. It’s in the screenplay’s pugnacious refusal to apologize, explain, or make excuses. And it’s in the sinewy performance of Chadwick Boseman, who portrays Brown as a man challenging the world to keep pace with his talent.

I didn’t love Boseman’s performance as much as many others did. There are moments when you can see him trying to summon Brown’s gnomic brand of braggadocio and not quite succeeding. There are even moments when I thought I detected terror in his eyes as, probably, he delved deep for something and then realized he hadn’t quite found the right vein. This usually happens when the screenplay has him address the camera directly — a problematic device, though it pays off in a couple of instances. Still: Was there a tougher role in movies in 2014? Playing James Brown while avoiding caricature is no mean feat. And in a physical sense at least Boseman is all one could hope for. He maps out in sweat and persistence an image that does justice to the hardest working man in show business.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Movies, Music, Performers and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to “Get On Up”

  1. The Butterworths wrote it? I just watched EDGE OF TOMORROW, which they also wrote (Christopher McQuarrie is also credited). EDGE is a goofy sci-fi action movie — GROUNDHOG DAY meets SAVING PRIVATE RYAN — but I enjoyed it. I’ll definitely check out GOU.

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  2. Faze says:

    I thought “Get On Up” failed for the same reason that “Jersey Boys” failed. Both movies were hopelessly square compared to the music that inspired them. GOU’s unconventional structure seemed like an act of desperation from a director with a conventional mind who seemed to be in over his head. Why did he attempt to recreate the TAMI show sequence, when the actual TAMI show footage is available all over the internet — and is 1,000 times more exciting than his leadfooted simulacrum? Filmmakers have used and exploited 60s pop music, but its essence still eludes them. James Brown was a vile man, and the Four Seasons were jerks. But their music lives on in an electric stratosphere that film, with its thick, slow textures, can’t grasp.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I definitely agree that no movie is going to recreate the excitement of an actual James Brown performance. That’s something every music biopic has to deal with. A Beatles movie isn’t going to recreate the excitement of a Beatles performance either. Unless, of course, the filmmakers simply drop old concert footage into the movie…which would lead to its own set of problems and criticisms. I don’t think musician biopics typically set out to create exact facsimiles of live performances. The filmmakers behind them know that’s a battle they can’t win, so they try to suggest it as best they can. Biopics tend to be more concerned with presenting a context for the music and providing some juicy life-story details.

      I was fine with the mock concert footage in GET ON UP. I thought some of it was exciting. I wish it wasn’t cut so closely; I’d rather see it from a distance in longer takes. But, then, that would probably reveal that the actors can’t dance as well as James Brown and his band.

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      • Faze says:

        Yeah, I wondered why the mock concert footage had so many fast cuts from so many angles. You’re probably right that it was to hide the less than Brownian dancing. As I recall, JB in the original TAMI movie was shot mostly straight on, with few cuts. And it was like a shot of adrenaline.

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  3. peterike2 says:

    I just don’t grok James Brown. Every decade or so I dutifully give a spin to “Live at the Apollo,” that most lauded of all albums, and every time I just go… “ehh.” It does nothing for me. It all sounds the same, and none of it interests me. I dunno why.

    On the subject of biopics, my two favorite musical biopics are “Control,” the Ian Curtis biopic which I think had really good concert scenes. And the other, weirder one is “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” the Ian Dury biopic. It’s not as successful as a film, but I like it’s weirdness. And I love Ian Dury as a songwriter. So brilliant in his own throw-backy way.

    Hey, both of my favorite biopics are about guys named Ian. I guess my next favorite will be whenever somebody does the Ian Anderson / Tull biopic. “Sitting on a park bench… DAH! da-DAH!”

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  4. peterike2 says:

    Speaking of biopics, apparently there is one coming out about NWA, called “Straight Outta Compton.” Based on the trailer, it look utterly disgusting.

    http://moviepilot.com/posts/2015/02/10/straight-outta-compton-trailer-i-can-t-believe-n-w-a-s-debut-was-almost-30-years-ago-2676681?

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  5. Steve Sailer says:

    I thought Boseman was fine, but then I looked up Eddie Murphy’s 1980s impressions of James Brown … wow.

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