Get On Up (2014)
“The Funk don’t Quit”
Get On Up (2014)
Director: Tate Taylor
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd
Synopsis: A chronicle of James Brown’s rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history.
Even before the opening credits have started to roll, the fact that a biopic about such a complex, turbulent character as James Brown comes with a 12A certificate brings into question both the authenticity of the film’s content and its makers’ true objectives in making it in the first place. And the fact that The Help, director Tate Taylor’s other film of note, allowed extraneous sub-plots to repeatedly crowd out the main storyline simply reinforces our misgivings. While Taylor once again displays a similar near-fatal lack of discipline with Get On Up, he also appears to struggle with exactly what he dare tell us about his subject. By all accounts, James Brown was a difficult man. He possessed an artist’s temperament married to a businessman’s cool eye for self-promotion. Saddled with the legacy of an impoverished and abused childhood, he had plenty of psychological baggage which regularly manifested itself in violence against others – including women – and, later in life, drug addiction. Not that you’d be likely to pick up on any of that from what Get On Up tells you of the man’s life.
The narrative jumps all over the place, switching back and forth between Brown’s impoverished childhood in the South, the swaggering pomp of his heyday, and the hand-to-mouth existence of his youth and early years in show business, for no apparent reason other than Taylor appears to want to escape the customary confines of the biopic genre. He also has Brown break the fourth wall for, presumably, the same reason. Neither technique works, and the non-linear narrative is particularly disorientating in the film’s opening reels, just when the audience should really be receiving a little help to find their feet. Things settle down after half-an-hour or so – or perhaps we finally grow attuned to Taylor’s erratic direction – and Chadwick Boseman (42) begins to stamp his authority on the role of Brown through all stages of his life from late teens onwards. Everything about Boseman is Brown: the look, the voice, the mannerisms. Brown’s larger than life persona means that any actor portraying him must take care to prevent their performance from tipping over into parodic imitation, which is something Boseman manages with ease, even when called upon to repeatedly refer to his own character in the third person. Aided by screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s decision to gloss over the less savoury aspects of his character, we find it almost impossible to dislike the man. The domestic abuse is passed off as an isolated incident, never again to be directly acknowledged, the drug abuse forgotten. The commercial prerogative once again overcomes truth so that a watered down version of the real man is delivered to as wide a paying audience as possible.
Where Get On Up does work is when its focusing on Brown’s relationship with the members of his band who, while enjoying the benefits of Brown’s meteoric rise, were regularly fined by ‘Mr. Brown’ for minor misdemeanours, and at one point had their pay withheld for no reason. In these scenes, the film picks at the psychological make-up behind the larger-than-life character, offering us a tantalising glimpse, a little depth of insight, before timidly pressing the bandage back into place. Boseman makes the film enjoyable to watch, and the musical sequences capture some of the manic, rapturous energy of Brown’s live performances, but Get On Up fails to provide more than a largely superficial insight into the man behind the music.
(Reviewed 7th June 2015)