Review: ‘Get on Up’ is a war between James Brown and the dreaded biopic

James Brown finally gets his own dumb biopic with "Get on Up." Credit: D. Stevens
James Brown finally gets his own dumb biopic with “Get on Up.”
Credit: D. Stevens

‘Get on Up’
Director: Tate Taylor
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

James Brown is strong, but is he strong enough to withstand the biopic? The genre is one of the mightiest in the movies, with a long history of turning iconoclasts into cliches, fascinating people into untouchable icons and messy lives into clean narratives. Most of history’s great thinkers, doers and artists have been left in its wake. Can it even best the Godfather of Soul? Here’s how “Get on Up” went down:

Round One

Advantage biopic: Perhaps the most powerful weapon in this biopic’s arsenal is the PG-13 rating. Making a James Brown movie PG-13 is more unbelievable than “World War Z” trying to do zombies without an R. There’s a fair amount of sex here — or at least general randiness. But Brown (played by “42”s Chadwick Boseman) is for the most part neutered and ordered to keep it in his pants.

Advantage JB: But Brown doesn’t play it safe in most other ways. Boseman throws himself into the role and not only nails his husky drawl but his dynamic, untiring moves. If Boseman isn’t as electric as the real deal, he’s close enough, and he doesn’t try to play him as a real person who turns the show on and off. He’s always on, more cartoon than man — which is to say he’s James Brown.

To "Get on Up"'s credit, Chadwick Boseman is a pretty amazing James Brown. Credit: D. Stevens
To “Get on Up”‘s credit, Chadwick Boseman is a pretty amazing James Brown.
Credit: D. Stevens

Round Two

Advantage biopic: The movie does try to humanize him anyway. It doesn’t take long to hop back to Brown’s less-than-idyllic childhood, when he was abandoned by his mother (Viola Davis). She proceeds to re-enter the narrative at carefully chosen, manipulative instances. At one point it shuffles the chronology only to bring her back at the point in the film when it would be the most moving. There’s also a son who will die and his longtime confidant, partner and defender Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who is treated like the true love of Brown’s life.

Advantage JB: But that’s basically it. Brown’s life doesn’t have a lot of warm material in it — just exhaustive performing, scrapping and reinventing. He dedicated himself completely to music and making money (through sometimes amusing side projects, only a few of which are even mentioned). To make a routine tearjerker, a film would have to invent material from whole cloth. He’s like Charles Foster Kane, only he has no Rosebud, and he goes far, far more insane.

Eventually in "Get on Up," star Chadwick Boseman is fitted with the traditional funny old man makeup. Credit: D. Stevens
Eventually in “Get on Up,” star Chadwick Boseman is fitted with the traditional funny old man makeup.
Credit: D. Stevens

Round Three

Advantage biopic: “Get on Up” fights back by overdosing on eye-rolling biopic tropes. There’s the obviously stupid-in-retrospect comment. (On The Rolling Stones: “In a year no one will know who they are!”) There’s the cheap undermining of classic material. (The record execs go on and on about how the seminal “Live at the Apollo” won’t even sell!) And of course there’s the rise-and-fall structure, in which James Brown has a lot of fun, gets out of control and then spends the last half hour miserable until the filmmakers find some not-very-convincing form of closure.

Advantage JB: But the stretch of fun lasts pretty long. In fact, it’s shocking the way it opens. That’s not to say the TV movie-level aural montage of events from his life played over a 1990s-era Brown (in reliably hilarious old man makeup that makes Boseman look like he melted). It’s the opening reel, which jumps from one nutty, freewheeling, seat-of-your-pants stranger-than-fiction tall tale — including his band almost being shot down over Vietnam — to another before getting into the typical this-happened-then-this-happened structure. But it never totally settles into that groove. Once you get settled it jumps around some more.  It’s as if the script was periodically commandeered by Brown’s spirit, which ordered the film to loosen up and be more like him. Sometimes it really nails the spirit of James Brown.

Dan Aykroyd's Ben Bart gets a lot of screentime in "Get on Up." Credit: D. Stevens
Dan Aykroyd’s Ben Bart gets a lot of screentime in “Get on Up.”
Credit: D. Stevens

Final blow: But it’s still directed by Tate Taylor, the white guy who made “The Help.” He’s a lot more loose than he was there, and his camera movements and editing style do try to mimic the life force of an uncontainable man. But it still tries to contain it, and the many, many attempts at trying to be down with Brown — usually by making fun of stupid white people — are undermined by its dealing heavily with Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), the fatherly exec who first made him big. It’s a movie at war with itself; it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It tries everything. Occasionally Brown talks to the camera, but it’s never done with any consistency. And the script doesn’t shy from some of his darker impulses — he’s an abusive husband and a tyrannical boss — but steps back before this goes whole hog character assassination. These are flaws — but then its inconsistency keeps viewers on edge, forcing them to figure out what the hell kind of biopic this is. It will please no one, but at least it tried not to be dull.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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