REVIEW: Get On Up

4 08 2014

In any musical biopic, the key ingredient is channeling the persona of its subject.  So in that regard, “Get On Up” succeeds behind Chadwick Boseman’s electric performance as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Boseman captures the firebrand in all his passionate fits of rage and spirited swaggering dance moves, and he does it with such astonishing accuracy that I had to remind myself on multiple occasions that I was in fact watching a fictional portrayal of Brown.

Beyond Boseman’s towering turn, however, there is very little else in “Get On Up” that manages to rouse. Most of the film’s issues, sadly, are deeply rooted in Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script. With the very blueprint of the movie so wonky, it’s tough to judge anyone involved in the film too harshly. They likely just did the best with what little they were given.

The problem has less to do with individual scenes, which were more or less fine when evaluated independently. The Butterworths’ problem is that these units drawn from various times at James Brown’s life simply do not cohere nor do they ever move in any distinct direction. Unlike “Boyhood,” the mere passage of time in “Get On Up” is not cause enough to watch a movie or maintain attention.

Get On Up

I do appreciate trying to shake up the often frustrating conformity of biographic films to linear plot structures in concept. Yet making minor tweaks to chronology simply because it’s an option available in the screenwriting toolkit provides a weak justification for the confusion and wandering that ensues. In one scene, Brown is firing a shotgun at an insurance seminar in the ’80s, and soon enough he’s performing for troops in Vietnam and then back to his childhood in rural Depression-era Mississippi. It’s all the whiplash and headache of trying to follow all the storylines of “Inception” without any of that film’s accompanying intellectual stimulation.

Perhaps they were actually aiming for something similar to Todd Haynes’ eccentric portrait of iconoclastic musician Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There,” a genius film where the form of storytelling brilliantly corresponds with all the contradictions of Dylan’s character. The jumbled nature of “Get On Up,” on the other hand, feels like someone dropped the script and then arbitrarily rearranged the pages, irrespective of where they were initially intended placement.

Thankfully, the brothers Butterworth at least give Boseman consistently accurate dialogue that he can spit out in a pitch-perfect incarnation of James Brown. But just about everyone else is not so fortunate, be it his lifelong friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) or his estranged mother Susie (Viola Davis) who’s tacked on for some toothless familial anguish. Their script for “Get On Up” left me with little enhanced appreciation or understanding of James Brown, whether it be his life or his work. Irrespective of the Butterworths, though, I did come away with a respect for the talents of Chadwick Boseman. C+2stars


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2 responses

5 08 2014
CMrok93

Sometimes it totally works, other times it doesn’t. However, Boseman is the real reason why this movie works at all. Good review Marshall.

9 08 2014
Alina (literaryvittles)

A shame! Oh well.

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