I was ready to get on up out of my seat and walk out on this biopic of musical legend James Brown after the first scene. The movie is just a few minutes old when we open on at a start-up business owned by Brown in 1988. We’re introduced to the small, tacky establishment when a white woman accidentally uses Brown’s personal bathroom.
The Godfather of Soul himself enters the scene (this is our introduction to the film’s star) and he looks haggard, to say the least. He notices someone used his bathroom and screams out a lengthy monologue about “Who took a s–t in James Brown’s bathroom?!” He also brandishes a shotgun, which he fires into the ceiling. Then, in mid-monologue, while holding the gun and terrorizing the employees of his gym, Brown breaks the fourth wall and, just like in Jersey Boys, begins talking directly into the camera. At this point, I wondered if this would end up being the worst film I’ve seen this year.
What’s disastrous about this opening scene, which would be a rotten sequence in any movie, is that the film has yet to find its footing and tell the audience which genre it’s taking on. I assumed I was witnessing either an unintentional comedy or a Key & Peele sketch.
The story switches to 1968, then 1939, back to the ’60s, the 1930s and all over the timeline of Brown’s life. Skewing the narrative order is nothing new, but here, it keeps us at arm’s length. Since we’re seeing mere snapshots of his life, with no momentum or dramatic progression, nothing builds.
We later watch Brown belittle his band mates and act like a mad perfectionist. Why? Who knows. In another scene that approaches the camp of the opening, we watch Brown and his wife, dressed like Mr. and Mrs. Claus, right as he punches her out in their kitchen. Why was Brown abusive? Didn’t the film establish earlier that he loved his mother and sought to escape his tough upbringing? The sudden turn of Brown as a wife abuser seems to come out of nowhere and is never explained. Most of the movie is like that, giving us unconnected occurrences and unexplained turns of character.
The film eventually wore down my resistance, as a couple of great scenes appear and almost salvage the movie. The depiction of Brown performing a concert after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in order to keep unity and avoid a riot, is a suspenseful, wonderfully staged set-piece. So are many of the concert sequences, though the music itself is stronger than the occasionally clumsy camera placement.
This is the first film directed by Tate Taylor since his award-winning The Help, an overrated film with great performances. Taylor has clearly seen a lot of movies, as this wallows in melodramatic showbiz cliches. Nothing here approaches the greatness of La Bamba, The Doors, Purple Rain, The Buddy Holly Story or 8 Mile.
Playing The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Chadwick Boseman’s spicy turn lingers between broad caricature and inspired interpretation. Unlike his understated take on Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42, Boseman appears to be working against decades of Brown impersonations and struggling to make the part his own. Eddie Murphy’s dead-on Brown on Saturday Night Live remains the standard.
Speaking of SNL, the film’s best performance comes from a too-little-seen Dan Aykroyd, who gives a hearty turn as Brown’s sometime manager. It’s especially interesting to watch if you remember that Aykroyd was in three movies with the real Brown. Viola Davis, Jill Scott and Octavia Spencer have one-note, overly familiar supporting roles.
Get On Up is too small a movie about such a large figure who lived big. It leaves out the legendary Rumble in the Jungle boxing match. The documentary When We Were Kings, which showcases Brown and the match, is a better movie about James Brown… but then again, so is Rocky IV.