"Get On Up" starts strong but can't quite keep it up
According to Hollywood biopics – "Ray," "Walk The Line," etc. – apparently every legendary musical performer's life was pretty much the same.
There are the sad, haunting early childhood memories, the hard climb to the top complete with cameos from other stars of the time, the battles with the unhip record execs who don't get the music, the marriages to women of varied patience. Eventually, after reaching the highest highs, it all comes crashing down – musical career in the dumps, relationships selfishly strained – usually around the time our star becomes obsessed with the highest highs of another, less legal variety.
But of course, the love of a good woman or good music or good family or, I don't know, just a good burger helps put our troubled star back on track for one triumphant final bow before an end credits in memoriam screen kills him off. Just pop in an energetic soundtrack and some Oscar buzz for the lead actor, and congratulations; you've just made Music Legend Biopic #143.
It's a disappointingly uncreative way to look at the lives of professional creatives, seemingly unaware they're rendering these supposedly once-in-a-lifetime performers all identical. The tunes may change, but the formula stays the same.
Thankfully, "Get On Up" seems to be just as bored with the formula as the audience. So instead of telling the same, old story in linear fashion with maybe a couple of flashbacks, the James Brown biopic bounces around in time like its screenwriter is Flubber.
The screenplay – actually credited to Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, who earlier wrote the summer's surprisingly great, equally jumpy "Edge of Tomorrow" – hops around wherever the film's rhythm takes it. It starts off with Brown (played by Chadwick Boseman of "42") dramatically walking down a hallway to a late-career show, then ricochets off to an incident involving a delusional Brown threatening office workers with a shotgun and heading into a car chase with police – all because somebody used his bathroom.
Then, like an over-caffeinated superball in a trampoline park, it bounces manically around to Brown's tour in Vietnam, then off to his troubled childhood with an abusive drunk of a dad (Lennie James) and a walk-out mom (the great Viola Davis, seemingly doomed to forever be underutilized), then off to a press interview in Reno and then off to Brown's early music career, joining up with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and his gospel band before taking it over – eventually with the help of record execs – on his way to stardom.
The narrative takes its lead from Brown's dance moves, hopping and slipping and erratically splitting wherever the beat feels right. Sometimes, the screenplay and director Tate Taylor ("The Help") find meaning amidst the frantic time-travelling. For instance, a TV gig finds Brown performing for the squarest white people – decked out in their finest Christmas sweaters – noticing his snow white surroundings and then desperately hopping forward in time to put on a loud, sweaty, boisterous show filled with unrepressed heat and energy.
There's a reasoning and logic – developing Brown's racial identity and thoughts – connecting those two moments. Most of the time, however, it's hard to get a grip on the furiously uncontained story, although it is entertaining to see where the unpredictable script will launch off to next. Maybe Brown will break the fourth wall again and start talking to the camera about his clever business strategies, or if Fred Malamed – playing an unhip record exec – will awkwardly attempt to do the Mashed Potato again.
"Get On Up" certainly has a unique energy all of its own, one fueled by its predictably catchy, grooving soundtrack of Brown's hits and its lead performances. Boseman nails all of Brown's theatrical mannerisms (he lets the original quite obviously do the singing), from his showy strut and raspy voice to his slippery dance moves that look like there's someone controlling his feet under the stage with magnets, someone who's a little drunk.
In "42," Boseman was stuck essentially playing a noble deity. Here, he gets to be a loud, electric livewire, and given the opportunity, he snags control of the stage and screen. It's not merely a good impression either; he brings impressive depth to the complex figure, a man of both entrancing charisma and repulsive selfishness.
He's aided by an equally sharp supporting cast. Davis and Octavia Spencer, Taylor's former cast members from "The Help," bring nice human weight to their small roles. Boseman's co-star Ellis, however, is almost his equal, playing the sympathetic man doomed to marvel at Brown's talent and continually return to his side even through his front man's cold, calculated business decisions.
As the film enters its second half, however, the movie's ability to ride out its almost anarchic energy begins to die down. The jumping around never coheres into a consistent story, becoming simply a sporadically organized highlight reel. Even with all of the time-jumping, fourth-wall breaking and directorial flourishes – most memorably a childhood memory of racial degradation soon injected with a burst of Brown's future funk – it becomes clear that "Get On Up" is simply reusing that same old, tired formula.
The same marriages gone awry. The same dalliance with darkness – mostly glimpsed just briefly, though Boseman gives these moments, like a searing look into the camera after a shocking moment of domestic violence, more impact and depth than the movie allows. The same fall into disgrace as our star flew too close to the sun. The same late attempt at reconciliation. It almost feels like the script was written linearly and, in a last ditch effort to be original, was tossed in the air – scenes landing where they may – and turned in.
The film has some pop – at first from the unusual organization, songs and performances, but eventually just from the last two – but the tedious familiarity soon sets in. Imagine if McDonalds introduced a deconstructed hamburger in order to spice up the original, only to discover it's just the old burger sliced, diced and scattered decoratively on a plate. It's interesting, but the meat's still the same – just served in a more disjointed, less satisfying whole.
"Get On Up" is certainly commendable for at least trying to bring something new with a formula that feels so very tired. Much like its subject, it moves to its own groove, and with all of its narrative tinkering, firecracker performances and soul-filled soundtrack, "Get On Up" certainly plays, sometimes exhilaratingly so, like the hardest working biopic in show business. But all of that effort and energetic showmanship is only in the hopes of passing off as something fresh.
Theaters and showtimes for Get On Up
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