Quick Review: Get on Up

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* * * 1/2

Dir. Tate Taylor, 2014

When I initially heard about Get On Up I was annoyed. Biopics, whose uninspired and cliched formula should have died when parodied by Walk Hard, are lifeless, dull, sentimentalized portrayals of creative artists. And here was Tate Taylor, who had just directed The Help (which may have been described by some of those negative adjectives I used) making a movie about James Brown. Crazy, electrifying James Brown.

As it turns out this is the musical biopic that I needed to see; a remedy to those boring, formulaic award-season models. Instead, it’s as idiosyncratic and funky as the Godfather of Soul himself. Sure, the movie drags in parts and can’t avoid every biopic cliche but those are exceptions rather than the rule. I tend to be very forgiving of films that try a lot and some of what it tries doesn’t work, and this is one of those movies.

The film announces its intention to be something different by opening with a coked out James Brown holding his employees at gunpoint to see who used his personal bathroom. After this, the rest of Brown’s life is told out of order by its screenwriters The Butterworth’s (Edge of Tomorrow). Instead of linearly showing us the life of James Brown, it instead gives us segments based upon his various nicknames and this feels more faithful to how Brown might have told his story rather than someone plugging his life events into a screenwriting formula. Brown (Boseman) also breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience, in one effective scene leaving a conversation to go get fried fish while explaining how his musical business plan was different. These moments of direct address usually work, with a few awkward exceptions, and one of the strengths of the film is how it juxtaposes Brown’s impervious self-confidence against moments that are distressing in their violence or discomfort to anyone else experiencing them. These moments which would perhaps have been played as pathos in another version of this film are instead played with a mix of ironic comedy and defiance.

Chadwick Boseman is incredible in this movie and somehow he’s been snubbed by every major award show this season despite giving the most entertaining acting performance I saw last year. His performance is far more interesting than many other impression heavy acting jobs that have earned other actors Oscar nominations or wins in past years.  Perhaps because, unlike Ray or Walk the Line or any other number of showbiz biopics, his Brown doesn’t have a rock-bottom moment of realization and then redemption that makes him sympathetic to the audience. There is a tiny bit of that, but for the most part the James Brown in this movie finds himself through performance. Exciting, proud performance.

 

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