Get on Up
2014, PG-13, 138 min. Directed by Tate Taylor. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Craig Robinson, Lennie James, Jill Scott, Josh Hopkins, Fred Melamed, Tika Sumpter, Allison Janney, John Benjamin Hickey, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott.
REVIEWED By William Goss, Fri., Aug. 1, 2014
A reporter stands up from the crowd. Mousy, blond, achingly Caucasian, she asks James Brown (Boseman) point-blank: “What, exactly, is ‘the groove’?” The flustered Godfather of Soul tries to explain that it’s defined more by feeling than words, and as directed by Tate Taylor, Get on Up works best on the rare occasions when it shares that elusive charge of emotion rather than trying to pin down the man behind the music.
This being a biopic in the tradition of Ray and Walk the Line, we’re treated to the usual highs and lows, exploring Brown’s impoverished childhood in Georgia through a teenage jail sentence to the successful career rise and ensuing egomania. However, for better and worse, the story unfolds as the late Brown himself might have related it, scattered across time, told with more impulse than clarity.
For instance, the film is framed by a broadly funny late-in-life incident involving a shotgun-wielding Brown interrupting an insurance seminar in order to determine who last used his precious private commode. We then leap back to the rising star’s Vietnam campaign, marred only by a mild case of anti-aircraft artillery, and then to his far more somber life as a boy (twins Jamarion and Jordan Scott), abused by his father (James) and abandoned by his mother (Davis).
From there, we proceed through Brown’s life with its own subject addressing the viewer directly (echoes of Clint Eastwood’s turgid Jersey Boys), and whenever it seems that he’s getting something resembling the warts-and-all treatment (abuse of drugs and wives receive equally cursory mentions), Taylor retreats to Brown’s mommy issues as an explanation for his behavior, if not an excuse.
Boseman’s performance as Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42 largely internalized that African-American icon’s struggles, but given Brown’s hard-working reputation and public persona, Boseman is burdened with a sense of lively imitation, nailing the voice when offstage, the moves when onstage, the sweat, the swagger. When Get on Up works, it shares Brown’s flamboyant wavelength with energetic musical performances and show-business antics or by simply saying nothing at all (scenes in which young James removes the shoes from a lynching victim or receives a previously denied meal from a waitress at the sight of a record exec speak their own kind of volumes).
Unfortunately, that only goes so far toward combating either cliched scenes of success (honkies standing agape in the recording booth, Octavia Spencer’s surrogate mama assuring a wide-eyed James that he’s gonna be a great man one day) or strained instances of poetic license (when the older James ends a car chase, his younger self emerges from behind the wheel).
Get on Up isn’t shy about Brown’s eventual existence as a wife-beating showboat who shunned his closest friends (Nelsan Ellis delivers a quietly brittle turn as Bobby Byrd) and tested his loyal colleagues (Dan Aykroyd plays his beleaguered manager), but it practically induces whiplash when trying to forgive his flaws. “You look backward, you’re dead,” Brown warns his audience early on, and sure enough, whenever the narrative does just that, it threatens to lose its flicker of life.
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Get on Up, Tate Taylor, Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Craig Robinson, Lennie James, Jill Scott, Josh Hopkins, Fred Melamed, Tika Sumpter, Allison Janney, John Benjamin Hickey, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott