Saturday, August 2, 2014

Review: "Get On Up"

Director: Tate Taylor
Runtime: 138 minutes

If Hollywood is listening properly, they will know that a new star has come roaring to life. Chadwick Boseman, who previously starred as Jackie Robinson in last year's 42, is here to make a case for himself, and he does so thrillingly. Moving from the world of sports to music, Boseman's performance as James Brown - the Godfather of Soul himself - is an electric take on an icon that easily transcends mere mimicry. The film around him, as directed by Tate Taylor (The Help), is quite good as well, but it's Boseman who undeniably leaves the biggest mark in Get On Up, which is only appropriate, given the Godfather's massive legacy. 

Though Get On Up does cover the majority of its subject's life, Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have sidestepped the Achilles heel of such an approach. As opposed to something like J. Edgar, which moved in mostly linear fashion and came off as a greatest hits tale, Get On Up jumps around in time in a style closer to Ray. One minute, we're in Brown's childhood, the next, we're somewhere in the middle of his career, and then we're somewhere around his first big break. At the very least, this choice of structure keeps the film from falling into the creaky arc used by so many showbiz biopics. 

The Butterworth brothers' script is certainly comprehensive, and Taylor has evolved nicely from the nice, but somewhat schmaltzy emotions of The Help. Only as the film enters its final lap does the structure feel less elegantly thought out. Rather than have one framing device to act as a narrative hub, Get On Up has three or four (I think). Some don't even seem like framing devices until, late in the game, the film suddenly returns to a setting to mark an important development. The film's last half hour or so isn't exactly messy, but it is a bit cluttered. 

Yet overall the storytelling is solid, and it certainly avoids the heavy drudgery that so many showbiz films fall into (the film touches on Brown's drug use, but never becomes mired in it). However, there are a few areas that might have benefitted from just a bit more probing, namely Brown's sometimes abusive relationship with his first wife, and his own musical inspirations. Regarding the latter area, yes, it's true that Brown was a trailblazer in multiple ways, but a richer look at the actual influences would have been beneficial. At the very least, the film does capture the relationships between Brown and the public, the establishment, and the socio-political environments that shifted during his lifetime (sometimes directly because of him).

All in all, it's a solid film that's immensely watchable, though so much of that is owed to Mr. Boseman himself. 42 proved that he could hold his own at the center of the film. Get On Up proves that he can absolutely burst through it. It's a big, barn-burner of a performance that feels entirely complete, despite some limitations imposed by the PG-13 rating. Boseman (who plays Brown from 16 into his 60s) so effortlessly inhabits the man's skin that the mere feat of talking and sounding like him quickly ceases to be a simple sketch show gimmick. In the film's biggest and smallest moments, he shines as bright as the sun, embodying the Godfather's big personality and showmanship (on and offstage) with riveting results. Boseman also holds his own musically. Though many of the big performance scenes had the actor lip sync, in other scenes it's Boseman's own voice. The resemblance is pretty damn impressive.

The film establishes that Brown could easily hold his own as a solo artist, and that his bandmates were easily replaceable (at least in the eyes of music execs). The same applies to Boseman and the rest of the ensemble. Though big names like Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Dan Aykroyd help round out the cast, their overall contributions are dwarfed by Boseman's hurricane-strength turn. However, Nelson Ellis (of TV's True Blood) as Brown's right hand man Bobby Byrd, does nicely as the diplomatic co-leader of Brown's musical entourage. And Davis, despite a tiny role, lends convincing gravitas to a stock character (albeit one based on a real person). 

So even though Get On Up may not shoot up to the top tier of musical biopics, it certainly cements itself as a solid (and very lively) piece of entertainment. Biopics that span decades of a subject's life outstayed their welcome somewhere in the last decade, but Get On Up proves that the subgenre isn't quite dead yet. If that means more star-making vehicles for actors like Chadwick Boseman, then that's hardly a bad thing. Hollywood is always looking for the next Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. It's rarely looking for the next Denzel Washington (if it was, Idris Elba would be everywhere by now) or Viola Davis. Here's hoping that enough people take notice of Boseman's towering take on a supernova-sized icon, and move him closer to the place in the stars he deserves to occupy. 

Grade: B

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