“Get on Up rebounds a bit after the first hour, but is still burdened by a great deal of scenes that are either slow, much too repetitive, or don’t feel like showing the story as it should be told.”
Tate Taylor reunites most of the cast of 2011’s unexpected hit The Help for the James Brown biopic Get on Up, another addition in the plethora of music biopics hitting the screen in 2014. From Clint Eastwood profiling one of the biggest things to come out of New Jersey and a film about the pre-fame years of Jimi Hendrix on the radar, Get on Up adds to that rather exciting genre but in an unfortunately disappointing manner. For one, this is R-rated material desperately trying to clean up its act for a PG-13 rating and makes the mistake of profiling one of funk’s greatest singers in one of the most disjointed and jumbled films of the year.
James Brown claimed that he didn’t belong to the genre of “funk,” but to the genre of “James Brown” and that every bit of music after him had a little bit of James Brown in it. That cockiness needs somebody on Leonardo DiCaprio’s level to profile such traits of narcissism and self-indulgence, and thankfully, we have Chadwick Boseman, who seems to be the go-to now for rather tame films about African-American men. Not that I have a problem with that; Boseman is a delightfully engaging presence, with the ability to already immerse himself in three different characters in his relatively short acting career. In the last year or so he has played an ambitious football player, a pioneering baseball player, and a godfather of funk music.
Boseman is a tremendous talent and his performance of James Brown shouldn’t go unrecognized this year when it comes time for the Academy to start analyzing the leading men of the year to nominate. Boseman nails the often indecipherable speech and dialect of Brown, in addition to the impeccable dance moves, in a way that you thought Boseman had to be possessed by Brown or even Michael Jackson. He moves with the intensity and fluidity of a professional dancer. The moves of James Brown – a key part of his universal success – could’ve easily been made subtle and shortchanged in a biopic about his life, but thanks to Boseman’s ambition and skill, they remain not just a defining feature in the character but a wholly entertaining addition to a film that needs a great deal of wholly entertaining additions.
The story needs little in the way of an introduction; it concerns Brown from a poor, young boy with neglectful parents and his meteoric rise to popularity as a funk-singer and dancer, a rise we see little of and can speak little about, even after seeing this film. This brings me to my first point in that the editing, done by Michael McCusker, is a serious issue in the film. From the first forty-minutes of the picture, McCusker chooses to compile the film in a choppy, anthology-esque way, jumping in and out of different time periods, going back years in time, propelling forward more, to the point where any continuity at all is lost. This nearly ruins the film from the outset. For starters, the viewer cannot get comfortable or adjust to the film’s indecisive cutting and chopping, and secondly, we cannot get a feel for cause-and-effect, a significant factor in biopics, small and large.
Thankfully, Get on Up rebounds a bit after the first hour, but is still burdened by a great deal of scenes that are either slow, much too repetitive, or don’t feel like showing the story as it should be told. For example, scenes of rape, drug use, and incredible verbal abuse are given shoddy, PG-13 treatment as the film never wants to be as dark or as effecting as it could be. However, I can forgive this since the editing kind of gets back on track, as McCuster settles down a little bit. Yet, there is still a vignette-quality to the film that, upon leaving the theater, has you reflecting on moments of the film you like, but not the entire film itself.
Unsurprisingly, Get on Up features excellent music, truly doing justice to the work of Brown in terms of choreography, sound editing, and tone. Boseman nails everything here with precision, again, worthy of awards, and he keeps the film interesting because he has to do a lot as an actor. This feature is easy to overlook given the abundance of aesthetic nonsense on display here. Boseman has to play emotional, low-key, and energetic in this film, often changing to these emotions through the transition of one scene, which shows major plus for him as an actor.
Some of the best scenes – in terms of writing, done by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, who did this year’s Edge of Tomorrow and acting – are when we see Brown bringing down a dull-roar with his commanding, assertive presence. We see Brown embody the kind of calm, openness and authoritative behavior that few other publicized men can. He is even able to settle down a group of angry and impulsive concert attendees, who are upset at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., something the policemen and security are struggling to do at the same venue. The trick is how Boseman shows Brown, not as somebody who is trying to brown-nose a group of people, but genuinely trying to see a gaggle of souls see who they’re becoming and trying to turn them around and see an issue in a different light. Subtleties like this, again, lurk everywhere in Get on Up but are made hard to see because of the film’s serious issues in editing, tone, and direction (many of these issues I find myself recalling and evaluating as I sit here writing this review).
Get on Up is by no means a bad film, and as far as concert biopics go, it’s one I wouldn’t advise against seeing (providing something like Jersey Boys or Walk the Line is another option under consideration). However, many of its subtleties – otherwise known as the things worth seeing in the film – are things many will inevitably overlook, and what you get on the surface is a messy state of affairs in numerous ways, something many will take notice of when watching the film. At one-hundred and thirty-eight minutes, it’s a hard film to watch, a harder film to appreciate given its issues, but a difficult film to not be entertained by in certain regards.