Review: Get On Up

Get On Up was dreamt back in 2000 by Stones front man Mick Jagger and producer Brian Glazer. However, it rattled around in development hell going through numerous directors, casting and rewrites, but finally it has reached our screens directed by The Help‘s Tate Taylor. But, having been reimagined so many times it has become virtually unrecognisable, being unable to decide what it wants tobe. In part a celebration of Brown as a showman and partly an exploration of the darker sides of his life, the film lurches schizophrenically between the two.

This isn’t surprising though as Brown did an astonishing amount and trying to put it all into one film is virtually impossible. The film covers 90% of Brown’s life, from his poverty-stricken childhood in rural Georgia all the way up to his final years. But in order to fit this all in the team have stretched themselves too far. There is an almost comical lack of context, and the film leaps from one event to the next with absolutely no warning or explanation. The fact that the film jumps around in time only compounds this confusion, and a fairly detailed knowledge of Brown is presupposed by the filmmakers.

However, despite the many flaws Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of Brown can be called nothing but blistering as he fills every scene with a real presence imbuing Brown with the unmistakable air of someone with absolute self-confidence. The opening is a hilarious tour-de-force, with Boseman’s whacked-out, shotgun-toting Brown berating a terrified and bewildered group of seminar attendees for using his private toilet.  It’s easily one of the best moments in the film, and Boseman’s performance is at its strongest when he’s chewing the hell out of the scenery and shouting incomprehensibly. Boseman totally sells it! If you want to see Brown doing his thing this film is for you packed with musical numbers all taken from live recordings of the man himself and random philosophical musings.Brown also steals every scene he’s in, with an infectious, mesmerising energy that the rest of the cast just can’t match.

An unstoppable titan

Although Brown is the main character so much time is devoted to him that no one else has any room in the plot. Every single character is there purely to act as a sounding-board for Brown. This means that while none of the characters have any depth, we also don’t care about their relationships with Brown. Additionally, although Boseman can play Brown as an unstoppable titan, when he’s trying to capture the more subtle nuances of the troubled icon whose mask of bravado is starting to slip, he falls just a little short. Unfortunately, as the film progresses, these scenes get more and more frequent as we move from the heady days of Brown’s ascension, to the slow implosion of his life and career.
The most baffling thing is the film’s unwillingness to deal with this though. Taylor seems to go out of his way to introduce elements that could invert our motion of Brown – his dictatorial management of his employees, his drug abuse and his alleged history of domestic abuse are all touched on, but done nothing with. Rather than use them to make a meaningful comment on the corrupting nature of fame, or the inherent ruthlessness needed to reach that level of success, these dark details are left dangling like a corpse on the gallows.

Tragically doomed

Get On Up‘s pacing really starts to go off the rails towards the end. The protagonist’s meteoric rise to fame and almost inevitable downturn would appear to set the classic template for the rise and fall of a tragically doomed musical god. However, this payoff never comes. Brown never appreciably hits bottom, and there’s no reversal of fortunes – he just smokes a little bit of PCP, gets into what is possibly the dullest police chase ever put to film, has a minor freakout in the world’s least intimidating prison, and then the next we see him he’s back to touring. Where other films might have a lavish comeback tour and a grand reconciliation with the estranged partner, Get On Up just sort of… ends. 

This is not an unenjoyable movie. It may not even be a bad movie. But it is not a good movie. The really frustrating this is, it so easily could be – somewhere in here, there’s the bones of about three different, equally fantastic James Brown biopics. Boseman is captivating and surprisingly funny both as a loose-cannon aging superstar and as a driven young up-and-comer enjoying the road to the top. Tate’s treatment of the bleaker parts of Brown’s upbringing and later life are unnervingly compelling. Brown as a musical and social pioneer is a fascinating accompaniment to his musical career. Taken together, however, it becomes a tangled mess of a film that tries to do too much and ultimately ends up doing nothing very much at all. There are many things to recommend Get On Up: the music is spectacular and varied, Boseman’s performance may well be a career highlight, and it has to be said that the period sets and costumes all look superb. But it could have been so much better, and that’s the biggest shame of all.