In “Get On Up”—the new James Brown biopic—thirty two year old actor Chadwick Boseman embodies the legendary funk singer in just about every way. He’s mastered his voice--not just singing but also Brown’s normal energetic speaking voice-- and he’s mastered the moves. Every time he’s on screen, which is basically the entire movie, he doesn’t just demand our attention, he grabs us by the collar and commands our attention. It’s a performance that goes beyond imitation, Boseman doesn’t just make us care about James Brown, he makes us passionate about him, excited about him. He makes us just as excited about James Brown as James Brown was about himself.
Here was a man who was simply high on life. (Although later on he was high on other stuff.) A man who came from a poor upbringing and yet—for the most part—never let the world get him down. During the movie there’s a scene where a reporter asks him what kind of music he sings and Brown responds that he sings James Brown music. It’s a hokey line for sure but Boseman sells the hell out of it. It’s one of many moments he’s able elevate himself above the rest of the movie.
It’s an amazing performance, easily one year’s best and the rest of the performances from the likes of Nelson Ellis as Bobby Byrd (Brown’s long time friend and band member) and Dan Aykroyd as Brown’s manager in “Get On Up,” all do their part in support. It’s too bad the rest of the movie is so clumsy and messy. It’s not like my expectations were very high; after all, “Get On Up” is directed by Tate Taylor who also did “The Help” and “42” (also with Boseman) so it’s not like I was expecting a challenging and defining biopic but I was expecting at least a coherent movie.
Things get off to a confusing and muddled start as it jumps around between about five different time periods in Brown’s life; one minute he’s complaining at random people because someone took a shit in his personal bathroom, then he’s in Vietnam flying to a concert in a plane with one of its engines on fire. Before we get a chance take those scenes in the movie jumps to a press conference—first of many press conferences—where Byrd is asked how he and Brown met. And finally, the movie jumps back to when Brown was a young boy, living in a shack in the woods with his abusive parents.
This is—more or less—the nature of “Get On Up,” jumping back and forth through time to key moments in Brown’s life. Taylor wants to forgo the traditional narrative structure but at the same time he wants to keep a chronological timeline, by flashing dates and subtitles on the screen. However, without warning he abandons that timeline and skips back or forward to another time period, confusing the narrative. To complicate things even more he throws in the tired “addressing of the fourth wall” gimmick, and half assed at that. If you’re going to have you’re characters talk to the audience, make it consistent.
It feels like a combination of bad scripting, directing and editing. Written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth the screenplay lacks any kind of cohesion, while Taylor’s direction is somehow tedious and snappy as the picture makes its way through Brown’s massive event filled life. In general, most of the scenes fail to make any real impact. There may be a few sassy one-liners but nothing real substantial. It’s not just a matter of covering too much material—a common trap biopics fall into—it’s that filmmakers don’t know what to do, don’t know what things to highlight and which things to omit. Important events and plot points—the fact that Brown owes a bunch of money in back taxes, his abusive nature towards his wife, his stint in jail, the death of his manager—are glossed over. One minute he’s talking about getting married, and in the next he’s married to his second wife and has three kids. Tonally, “Get On Up” is a disaster, being silly one minute and melodramatic the next. The only thing that’s consistent are the musical performances and as enthralling as they may be they start to get repetitive after a while.
Perhaps most egregious about “Get On Up” is the editing. The movie cuts and swerves in and out and around Brown’s life like a drunk driver; there’s no consistency or even much continuity. Like the direction it’s both laborious and quick. The worst example of the editing is when Brown is in his dressing room after a show. He’s informed that his mother Susie (Viola Davis) is here and just as Susie is about to enter the room and have a heart to heart with her son, the movie cuts to some other event and for the next forty minutes or so—this is not an exaggeration—his mother isn’t even addressed and instead we see other parts of his life. During this lengthy aside, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking: “ah shit, we still have to circle back around to see the rest of the dressing room confrontation.” And by the time it does finally come back the film’s been going on for two hours (of the two hour and eighteen minute run time) so we’re too exhausted to really care about the scene. Another example: there’s a scene where one minute Brown and his family are happily giving out dollar bills to kids during Christmas and the next he’s slapping his wife out of the blue, because I guess now he’s an abuser?
In the end it’s all a shame because Boseman is truly great in the role. I know it’s common in biopics for there to be a great lead performance surrounded by a not so great movie but in the case of “Get On Up” we have a great performance surrounded by a bad movie. I understand Taylor was trying to avoid linear storytelling but the power of the performances would have easily made up for that. And besides, linear storytelling is better than no consistent structure whatsoever. If it weren’t for Boseman, “Get On Up” would be completely worthless and probably make my annual worst-of list.