Sunday, August 3, 2014

Review: Get On Up

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Tate Taylor's "Get On Up" doesn't break any ground as a music bio film, of which there have been too many to count during the past decade, but Chadwick Boseman does a terrific job of capturing the essence of the legendary James Brown.

From mimicking his voice and swagger to emulating his impressive dance moves on stage, Boseman - who recently played another legend, Jackie Robinson - brings Brown to life, better than I can imagine any other actor being able to do.

On the scale of movies about famous musicians, it's not quite as good as Jaime Foxx's Ray Charles movie or 2005's Johnny Cash picture "Walk the Line," but it's slightly better than Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys" and certainly leaves The Notorious B.I.G.'s sadly lightweight bio film in the dust. In other words, it's a good movie and not a great one. And, of course, none of these aforementioned films are even in the same league as Todd Haynes' brilliant Bob Dylan movie "I'm Not There."

The film's nonlinear structure is both a blessing and a burden. On the one hand, it makes the film stand out. You'll certainly have a difficult time forgetting the odd opening sequence during which an older Brown fires off a shotgun in a room full of people after one of them used the bathroom in a building he owns. This is then followed by Brown's explosive arrival to perform for the troops in Vietnam, which is complete with his plane nearly being shot down and the singer lecturing a military man on how long his set will last.

On the other hand, this structure - which frequently feels a bit all over the place - makes the picture occasionally a bit disjointed. Take, for instance, a scene in which Brown's mother (Viola Davis), who abandoned him as a child, shows up backstage at one of his concerts. Immediately after Davis's character shows up, the action cuts to more flashbacks having nothing to do with Brown's relationship with his mother. Then, some 30 minutes or so pass until we are backstage again with the singer and his mother. And there's absolutely no reason to have split the scenes up.

The film is filled with great reenacted concert sequences. A particularly effective one involves Brown performing in Boston immediately after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The mayor asks the crowd to honor King's legacy by not getting out of control and he is obviously referencing the riots taking place across the nation. As Brown performs, some audience members jump up on stage, the police begin to get rough with them and Brown manages to keep the situation under control. In fact, this sequence fits in well with the rest of the film, which paints Brown as a control freak.

This picture is a warts and all type of bio. In other words, the filmmakers think Brown was a genius, but they also take no pains to portray him as a saint. During one sequence, he hits his wife, but this is never mentioned again, leaving the incident feeling curiously unfinished. And, to say the least, Brown demands respect from his band members, but hardly ever gives it in return.

It's Boseman who carries the film with his energetic performance, but the supporting cast is also pretty solid. Davis, Octavia Spencer and Dan Aykroyd do well with relatively small parts and Nelsan Ellis brings a fair amount of depth to his portrayal as Bobby Byrd, Brown's long-time right-hand-man, who eventually loses patience with his boss after he consistently wants to hog the spotlight.

The film was directed by Tate Taylor, who was also responsible for "The Help," a film that drew some criticism for the way it portrayed its black maids during the 1960s in the south and due to the fact that its story was from the perspective of a white woman.

"Get On Up" tackles race in a little more up-front manner during the aforementioned concert following King's death, a discussion between Brown and his manager (Aykroyd) about not becoming a servant to the white owned and operated record companies and a flashback in which a young James must fight other black children as white spectators look on and cheer (another scene that packs a punch, but leaves us hanging by offering no explanation or frame of reference). But it still feels as if the film could have covered more on this front, considering that Brown was never shy about discussing race in his songs ("Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud").

In the end, "Get On Up" is a good film about a great singer and entertainer. And as for summer movies go, it's better than most. At the very least, you'll be able to witness a terrific performance and listen to some fantastic music.

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