Directed by: Tate Taylor.
Written by: Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and Steven Baigelman.
Starring: Chadwick Boseman (James Brown), Nelsan Ellis (Bobby Byrd), Dan Aykroyd (Ben Bart), Viola Davis (Susie Brown), Lennie James (Joe Brown), Fred Melamed (Syd Nathan), Craig Robinson (Maceo Parker), Jill Scott (DeeDee Brown), Octavia Spencer (Aunt Honey), Josh Hopkins (Ralph Bass), Brandon Smith (Little Richard), Jamarion Scott (Little James Brown), Jordan Scott (Little James Brown), Allison Janney (Kathy).
“There are no second acts in American lives.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
Unlike the Fitzgerald’s famous quote, James Brown certainly had a second act in his life. What he lacked was a third act. Here was a main whose life started in the most oppressive poverty imaginable – who was first abandoned by his mother, and then by his father, and was raised by a family friend in a brothel. Somehow, he survived that poverty, and went on to become a rich and famous musician – one of the handful of African-American singers from the 1960s, who brought their music to the masses – and also reinvented it for his own purposes. But Brown was a damaged man – capable of violence against his numerous wives, petty fines directed at his bandmates, egomaniacal rants at everyone around him. Get On Up, the Tate Taylor’s biopic of Brown, never shies away from the bad aspects of Brown and his life. And, daringly, the movie jumps around in time – from his childhood in the 1930s, to his time as one of the biggest stars in the world in the 1960s, to his later life in the 1980s and ‘90s. Like a film such as Cloud Atlas, the movie seems more interested in connecting scenes that are emotionally or thematically related, rather than telling the story in a chronological order. For much of the movie this jumping around in time covers up the fact that the movie really has no third act. Unlike, say Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, or also had biopics made of them, James Brown never really overcame his demons. And after the 1970s, James Brown pretty much lost his relevance as a musical performer – without the late career of someone like Cash, who reinvented himself for a newer generation. Brown as a genius to be sure – but kind of a one note genius. Once you realize this, you realize the movie really doesn’t have anywhere to go.
That’s not to say the movie is bad – there is a lot to admire about the movie – most notably the great performance by Chadwick Boseman as Brown. It’s easy to do an impression of Brown – with his trademark howl, his dance moves and constant movement. Boseman nails this to be sure – although it is Brown we hear on the soundtrack – we believe Boseman is Brown throughout the movie. As he proved last year in his breakout role as Jackie Robinson in 42, Boseman is an immensely talented actor, who isn’t afraid to play iconic people, and dig deeper than the surface of the character. Through two movies now, Boseman has delivered great performances in average movies. If he ever finds a project that matches his skill, watch out, because he’s going to deliver a monumental performance.
The movie is, right from the start, terrifically entertaining. In three scenes at the beginning of the movie – one from the 1980s when Brown holds a group of people hostage with a shotgun, to a scene where he goes to entertain the troops in Vietnam in the 1960s, and his plane is shot at – everyone else is scared, but not Brown – he knows God won’t kill him yet, to a scene of his childhood in the 1930s, where his parents argue, and then leave him outside as they go to have sex. From the outset, Taylor has established Brown as an unstable, perhaps crazy, but never boring person. And that perception of the man persists throughout the film. No matter what era Brown is in, no matter what he is doing, no matter if in that scene you love him or hate him, Brown is never boring. Neither is the movie.
There are problems with the movie. This is a movie about an African American entertainer in an extremely sensitive time in American history for race relations – but the movie rarely acknowledges it. There is a great scene where Brown is performing his trademark “I Feel Good” in a Frankie Avalon movie, wearing the worst Christmas sweater imaginable, and has an inner thought (“I’m in a honky hoedown”) – and then briefly flashes forward to Brown performing the same song in the 1970s, at his most “funky”. Late in the film, the assassination of Martin Luther King is announced – even though Brown has professed no allegiance to him or his ideas at any point in the movie – mainly to set up a performance in Boston the day after the King assassination. In the film, Brown seems to undergo a resurgence of Black Pride – singing “I’m Black and I’m Proud” – and for the first time since his childhood, not straightening his hair in his trademark style – but the movie skims over this so quickly, it barely registers. As I said about 42, I would have loved to see what Spike Lee would have done with this same material – I think he would have had a more daring take on the subject matter than Taylor.
Yet despite all the obvious flaws in Get On Up, I have to say I enjoyed it. Boseman is terrific, as I said, and Brandon Smith is so great in his two or three scenes as Little Richard that I want to see an entire movie with him in that role. Viola Davis is also great in a limited role as Brown’s mother – who loves him, but not enough. The musical scenes are entertaining, the period detail is terrific, and the movie never slows down. No, it’s not a great movie, but perhaps Brown doesn’t lend himself to a great movie. At some point, he would have needed to have a third act to make a great movie, and he never had one. He was a poor boy who grew up into a damaged genius – and stayed that way until the end. There is greatness in Get On Up, and I think a better film could be made about Brown. But perhaps not one that encompasses his whole life. That adds up to an entertaining, yet ultimately unsatisfying movie. Damn if it's entertaining though.