Variety‘s Owen Glieberman has written that the finest performance by Chadwick Boseman, currently starring in Da 5 Bloods, is his James Brown channelling in Tate Taylor‘s Get On Up (8.1.14). While I completely agree, I don’t have many vivid memories of that Universal release. The Apollo Theatre dressing-room standoff between Brown and Viola Davis‘s “bad mom” is all that really stands out.
I do, however, have a profound and lasting affection for Alex Gibney and Mick Jagger‘s Mr. Dynamite, the Brown documentary that premiered on HBO roughly three months later (10.27.14). Get On Up was a respectable, hard-pushin’ Hollywood biopic, but the Gibney doc was the real thang. The raunchy, grinding, rhythmic current had it all over the Taylor biopic, which, by the way, Jagger also co-produced.
“Get On Up Is Boseman’s Show,” posted on 7.30.14:
There’s no question that Chadwick Boseman‘s performance as James Brown is the best thing about Tate Taylor‘s Get On Up. The film has other pleasures but Boseman matters most. He was naturally obliged to play it solemn and reserved as Jackie Robinson in 42, but not as the late soul-funk legend, who was nothing if not irascible in a gifted sort of way. This is a snappy, raspy, rapscallion submission that never softpedals or seems to be the least bit concerned about whether whitebread types will “like” the character or not.
Honestly? Boseman’s Brown is not 100% likable…and that, for me, is where the integrity comes in. Boseman has absolutely earned himself an armchair at the 2014 Best Actor table. By giving himself, monk-like, to Brown’s spirit, history and rambunctious energy, he’s gotten up offa that thing and lit some kind of fuse.
My first reaction to the film was one of relief, as I’d gotten an impression from the early trailers that director Tate Taylor (The Help) had created a sweetened-up, Hollywood-style, megaplex-friendly Brown. The very good-looking Boseman seemed too tall and smiley — not in the least bit threatening, too white-angled.
Well, that was marketing. That was Universal selling a homogenized Brown that never existed in real life but who seemed to exist based on the clips they chose to show. That’s not where the film is coming from. Yes, it skirts or avoids certain (okay, more than a few) aspects of the Brown saga, but it gets a lot of it right. Or so it seemed to me. I mean, I know the general Brown bio and have read a lot of things about him, etc.
I’m not going to describe the whole thing or recite Brown’s biographical milestones. If you want the usual-usual go to Get On Up‘s Rotten Tomatoes page, where it’s currently holding down an 83% positive rating.
I’m not persuaded that the time-flipping, hop-scotching editing scheme works as well as Taylor hoped it would. It feels a little bit haphazard — somehow not as effective as it should or could have been. On top of which Boseman occasionally addresses the camera as he fills in narrative gaps or provides context, and I’m not sure that was such a good idea either. I sympathize with Taylor’s intention not to follow the usual narrative strategy about a music-biz legend (i.e., start with a prelude to a big concert performance and then reverse back to the beginning…this happens, that happens, this happens, etc.) and that’s fine. But after a while you just want the story to get in gear and get on with it.
The truth is that that Get On Up doesn’t have much in the way of story tension. After an hour or so it hits you that there’s no discernible arc or scheme. We’re just along for the rough ride of James’ life and that’s that. I was saying to myself, “What’s the structure of this thing? Are we just going to stay with James until he gets old and dies? I’m not sensing a plan here.”
I’ll post another riff when the mood strikes, but the truth is that when I see a film I like to write about it within 12 to 24 hours or the will to say something starts to evaporate. I saw Get On Up two or three weeks ago and it’s been sitting on hold for so long that…well, I’ve said it. If I was pissed off about some grievous failing, okay, but it definitely didn’t make me mad, not even a little bit. I started looking at my watch around the two-hour mark (the running time is 138 minutes) but other than that I was into it, enjoying the hell out of Boseman, waiting for this song or that performance to happen.
Why didn’t they throw in that hilarious Eddie Murphy clip, just for fun?
Exciting and on-target as Boseman is, he’s still too tall to play the real James Brown, who was something like 5’6″. Taylor and his producers could have chosen to cast him against taller costars as well as created over-sized furniture and door frames that would have made Boseman seem a little shorter. This is what the producers of La Vie en Rose did to make Marion Cotillard‘s Edith Piaf seem shrimpier, and what, conversely, the producers of Julie and Julia did to make Meryl Streep bigger and taller than she actually is by creating smaller chairs and beds and doorframes.