I knew very little about James Brown before seeing Tate Taylor's Get On Up. Sadly, that's still the case. This is one of the most irritating and frustrating films I've seen all year: irritating because Taylor and editor Michael McCusker seem so hell-bent on avoiding familiar biopic territory that they've taken a perfectly serviceable film and played 52 Card Pickup with the narrative. It's frustrating because there's so much brilliant talent and energy buried under the pretentiousness that one can almost see Get On Up's stifled potential weeping at the edges of every frame.
We jump from the latter days of Brown's career to the middle to the beginning to the kind-of middle to the end to the beginning--all with dates and cute chapter headings that become absolutely meaningless very early on.* In one scene, Brown is on the cusp of both stardom and fatherhood. Ten minutes later, he's wrangling four school-aged kids and two wives (one current, one ex) on the tarmac of his private jet. Characters and motivations come and go, appearing to change on a whim, simply by virtue of our having been fast-forwarded or rewound too much to latch onto anyone but Brown. Maybe that's the point, considering Tate's movie is about one of the most narcissistic and unlikable artists ever captured on film.
I should clarify: the character of James Brown, as written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (who we last encountered playing around with time in the far more coherent and enjoyable Edge of Tomorrow) is a monster of ego, libido, misogyny, and violence, who may or may not resemble the real-life Godfather of Soul. If even half of what's portrayed here is accurate, it's puzzling to me why anyone would have put up with this jerk--historically significant musical genius or not.
The film opens with a mid-sixties Brown bringing a shotgun into one of his businesses (what, exactly, that business is never gets explained) and terrorizing a seminar because someone dared to use the bathroom. The film ends with Brown strutting confidently onto a stage, imagining everyone we've met in the movie chanting his name. In the middle, we're treated to spousal abuse; drug abuse, berating of friends and family; blanket racism against white people; and even more of Brown's name--uttered by himself, in the third person.
I've heard about Brown's influence on music, and have enjoyed many of his songs, but Get On Up leaves out key bits of information that would have perhaps made me a fan of the artist and not just the art. Tate and company gloss over, for example, the process by which Brown found his voice and invented his game-changing funk. His struggles breaking into the white mainstream seemed less about skin color and more about his toxic personality--again, it's difficult to tell because the timeline is a giant bowl of spaghetti.
Every white person in the movie is presented as an untrustworthy square, which seems like an easy out to me. Considering how many terrible black influences Brown encountered in his life, it's unclear how he could so easily condemn one race over the other. As an audience member of mixed heritage, I felt familiar pangs of racism while watching Get On Up as I did with Tate's previous hit, The Help. Both films asked me to accept a bizarre line of inherent racial nobility versus ignobility, which I feel are detriments to the very conversations each piece was meant to inspire.
There is a single scene that transcends the filmmakers' skewed perspective: following Martin Luther King's assassination, Brown plays a show at Boston Garden and quells a riot by asking his brothers and sisters to rise above the Angry Black stereotype. It's a beautiful, complex moment that makes little sense in a film whose protagonist is presented as alternately simple and savvy, soulful and reprehensible--depending on the needs of the scene and not, as I've said, the greater story.
The only reason to see Get On Up is for Chadwick Boseman's turn as James Brown. As turned off as I was by the character, I dialled in on the actor's awe-inspiring commitment to nailing Brown's distinctive speech, attitude, and dance moves. When he takes the mic, electricity blushes. Boseman is surrounded by a notable supporting cast that includes the likes of Help alum Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, as well as Nelsan Ellis (terrific) and Dan Aykroyd (embarrassing), but their work is ultimately undone by the editing.
Get On Up succeeds in being an unconventional biographical drama, but fails at being a good one. By invoking, I guess, the spirit of James Brown and playing by their own rules, Taylor and the Butterworths prove that they're no James Brown. It takes talent, passion, and an instinctive understanding of what the audience wants and needs in order to pull off such a daring feat. This movie's funk isn't so much something you feel as something you smell.
*Surely someone on this production could've gotten Tarantino's number.