Monday, August 4, 2014

Review: "Get on Up" Does James Brown Justice and Nobody Else

Chadwick Boseman
There are few figures in music history that are as pompous, exciting, and wild as James Brown was at the height of his career. He could dance, sing, and almost seemed to control the world with music that may have seemed lyrically banal, but was invigorating with passion and funk. It only makes sense that he would eventually join Ray Charles and Johnny Cash and get the biopic treatment. Director Tate Taylor manages to make a nice flashy package in which we get a sense of who Brown (Chadwick Boseman) was, but what does it all equal up to besides a scrapbook of memories? Get on Up, for better or worse, is a film that benefits from an interesting subject that is more interesting than he should be during the dull parts.

It almost makes too much sense why Mick Jagger is a producer on this movie. Besides an arbitrary cameo by "The Rolling Stones," the film plays like the conflict-free view of a man who had a lot of demons. There are struggles, but they seem to be resolved by simply playing out the next scene. Band members quit and there's spousal abuse. All of these elements never feel sincere because there is no focus on the more personal side of Brown. At best, we get a glimpse through the window at these events. Everything works out and Brown comes off as the coolest, hardest working singer in the business. All of his small quirks simply are results of dedication to make funky music. In fact, Brown almost escapes the entire film without a single damnation despite being arrested at multiple points throughout the story.

What the film succeeds at it editing. It is unfortunate that the film hits the biopic flashback beats of Walk the Line and inherently Walk Hard. It begins with him as an older, wiser man in 1993, walking to a gig. From there, the film becomes a disjointed throw into the man's personal life. It doesn't immediately jump back to his childhood, but instead an infamous incident in the 80's that featured a car chase with the cops. That is cut abruptly with flashbacks, yet again, to a concert in Vietnam that is again incomplete before flashing back. The film does this a few times and manages to get a significant chunk of time into the narrative before we ever meet the origin of Brown with an abusive father. 

The one benefit of jumping around is that each moment isn't necessarily interesting on its own. Yes, the film manages to cover major events in the performer's life, but it comes across as if flipping through pages and taking mental notes to revisit pages that were flipped over. The events seem incongruous and aren't allowed to fully play out before tying together technically arbitrary moments. They don't even share thematic elements and the attempt to tie them together at the end falls flat. While this experimental style keeps things interesting, it keeps from having a consistent tone or concept become prominent to the audience. One of the film's biggest cruxes, when Brown meets his mother (Viola Davis) at the Apollo Theater, loses momentum simply because it plays out several times throughout the film, never allowing the emotional tension to rise.

The editing is a rather fantastic way of covering up Taylor's uninteresting eye for directing. He doesn't bring any visual sense to a scene and at best allows Brown to strut his stuff. There's even a few strange asides to the camera that make no sense scattered throughout the film. It all hides the fact that this is a straightforward biopic minus the high-strung conflict. By the end, Brown is given plenty to like, but that's because the film refuses to ever consider him wrong. The closest that he gets to it is when best friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) threatens to leave only for him to come back in a truncated speech that essentially ends with the phrase "The funk don't quit." In fact, while Byrd and Brown have great chemistry, there's never a real sense of them being as great of friends as the film suggests. 

The one benefit of the film is that Taylor knows how to shoot concert scenes. Brown's biggest contributions were that of being a performer that could bust a move while singing these anthemic numbers. For a film this generic, the concert scenes are impressively stylized and feel like a real part of the show. It highlights the energy and even captures the audience dancing along. Maybe some of the routines were truncated, but it is the biggest sign that Boseman is the star of this show over the script, the director, and maybe even the supporting cast. He really captures the dance moves impeccably and gives us a reason to care about Brown's legacy in this biopic.

In fact, the film would be entirely disposable without Boseman. After doing great work in 42, he manages to embody yet another iconic figure. From the mushy voice to the lean in his walk, there is an authenticity to the performance that at times makes him seem like a mirror image. He is magnetic and controls the film, providing humor and drama in ways that even the tone lacks. He gives it his all and turns in one of the best performances of the year. The only wish is that the film better complimented this. Massive editing can only make the story so interesting. For the most part, though, Boseman proves that in his brief film career, he is a force to be reckoned with.

As someone who admired Brown's persona, I really enjoyed the performance. In fact, the film is a great showcase for this aspect alone. However, much like the real life Brown, it doesn't want to dive into anything too deep and personal. This is about having a good time, and nobody is going to stop Brown from bringing the funk. That is unfortunate, as this could have been so much more engrossing. For what it is, Get on Up is worth seeing just for Boseman and the moments in which he shines best, which is frequently. Otherwise, this feels like a broad overview of a man deserving of better narrative representation.

Left to right: Boseman and Nelsan Ellis
I don't have high prospects for this film's Oscar chances. I don't expect it to get into the Best Picture race at all. While The Help was a surprise smash, it had a higher pedigree of actors and produced far more consistent work. Yes, Get on Up is a biopic in the pattern of Walk the Line or Ray, but it doesn't match up to those films because it doesn't have a thematic draw. Brown is simply a character existing in his story. There isn't much draw to him beyond that in terms of getting in the Best Picture race. In fact, I don't see this movie getting into any of the other categories.

That is, except for Best Actor. Maybe it is too early to speculate, but Boseman does make this film worth seeing. It is by no means a great film nor does it have much depth, but it does allow the actor to portray an icon with swagger and fun. This almost feels like a bias that will not go unnoticed. Brown was an important figure and he gets a great performance in the process. It isn't just in the subtle moments, but also in the dance moves and being overall flashy. This role has it all, and I can only hope that it gets the recognition for that. Of course, the film has to be able to last until Oscar talks, which seems less likely due to its overall success in being a compelling film.

Will Chadwick Boseman get an Oscar nomination? Does a film's mediocre narration diminish its chances at bigger awards? Is there anyone among the supporting cast worthy of attention?

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