Director Tate Taylor (The Help) delivers another fair film that should have been great. Like his 2011 film, The Help, Get On Up is bogged down by some messy direction in spite of some really strong performances.
Premise: The story of James Brown‘s rise from destitute to diva to become one of the most influential musicians in history. Result: A good but sloppy film that does live up to expectation.
The opening of Get on Up is a neck-breaking series of random moments across James Brown’s (Chadwick Boseman) life ranging from drug-induced rage to arrogance in the face of enemy fire (in Vietnam) to instants of joy in an otherwise troubling childhood. And it is these moments that best summarize the strategy Taylor chooses for this film: a schizophrenic panoply of events and emotions crashing upon the audience like waves over stone. And the sensation is much the same: jarring, calamitous, and often off-putting.
In a sense, that was Brown’s life: a series of random friendships such as with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and producer Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) as well as confusing and often traumatizing family experiences with mother Susie Brown (Viola Davis), father Joe Brown (Lennie James), and adoptive Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) – who ran a brothel. And so, despite the discomfort it will cause audiences and the sacrificed connection to the actual film, the style may help some audiences understand the instability that was his life on Earth.
Wading through the scene casserole, observers will find a meteoric rise by Brown due to several, different supporters along the way: first, Byrd for helping him find belonging; next Little Richard (Brandon Smith) for giving him the connections and Ralph Bass (Josh Hopkins) for discovering him.
His intense jealousy, his temper and arrogance all fused together with his performance brilliance, mentorship, and inspiration leap from the screen. But whatever way you see it, his life was a blend of chaos and brilliance, and like any tortured genius, it is difficult to uncover true happiness.
Like Jersey Boys, the film is supported by the music and the performances are entertaining enough to keep interest even when long scenes or ubiquitous scene-flash “arounds” become tiresome. But ultimately the film is too long for its own good despite these performances and a few scattered moments of genuine emotion.
The acting in this film, however, is largely beyond reproach. Boseman is phenomenal as Brown, embodying him to such an extent as to wonder if he were possessed. Davis is quite strong in her limited time on screen but works perfectly with Boseman to mesmerize in the film’s most poignant scene.
To this end Spencer is powerful and Akroyd’s role is a welcome comedic infusion amidst a sea of tragedy. Ellis is good but his role is inherently understated making it difficult to shine against Boseman’s onscreen inferno. Special recognition, however, must go out to Brandon Smith for perfectly delivering Little Richard in his scene stealing performance.
Sadly, Get on Up does not live up to the complex Brown legacy. While there is a lot happening on screen, and much of it good, the jarring delivery and the unnecessary length may feel right on paper, but ultimately drag the film way down.
Rating: 6 – A mediocre Prosecco that a cute bartender served you