Foreword: Yes, I will jump into this review with no acknowledgment that I haven’t posted anything for about 8 months. Hey, it’s not my fault you guys didn’t love me enough. ;-)
For a man of such prestige and remarkable skill and charisma, James Brown should probably have a whole eloquent, wordy paragraph about his influence in music and why he’s one of the greatest of all the time. However, I can’t personally conjure up any words that haven’t already been said by others to justify his greatness. So let me reiterate a common belief: James Brown rocks!
He’s one of those artists whose appreciation from me grew stronger as I grew older. As a kid, I knew he was a guy who made catchy music, including “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Get Up Offa That Thing,” two of the most overplayed soul records in history (thank you, children’s films). As I got older though, I was truly pleased to know that he was not only the Godfather of Soul, but also he was one of the pioneers of that tight, black rock called “funk music.” Not to mention, his dancing skills were otherworldly. He practically glided on the floor with rapidness and fluidity.
I bring all of this up, because if you’re looking for a film that provides insight and details into why James Brown is such a tremendous artist, you’re not gonna find it in this year’s Get On Up.
The film, through a narrative similar to Pulp Fiction, recounts James Brown’s humble yet difficult upbringing, his discovery for his love of music, and his ascent into being the musical god that we all know he is with occasional obstacles…that the movie oversteps in, like, 30 seconds for each one. Not much of a deep plot, but it isn’t one of those movies. It should be, but it isn’t.
Pondering my early film memories, one that pops into my mind frequently is my father introducing me to the 2004 classic, Ray. I remembered him from an appearance of Sesame Street, but didn’t know too much about him. My father bought it on PPV and we, as a family, watched it all together. Even for being an 8-year-old, I understood the film perfectly and as a kid, I was hypnotized by it. I think it was the first film that really made me start thinking of film as an art; an art that can portray its subjects in a way that it cuts through the souls of them and the audience. Plus, I was blown away by Jamie Foxx’s phenomenal performance of Ray Charles, as were many other critics and audience members. Not only did it transcend people’s perceptions of Jamie Foxx, but also it really re-vitalized the biopic.
Now when I first saw the advertising for this film, comparisons to Ray, inevitably, instantly penetrated my brain, even before I saw it. Immediately though, I had to brush them out of my psyche because I felt that would be an unfair standard to hold this movie to. However, about a half-hour into the movie, those comparisons I promised to forgo suddenly came rushing back to me with a vengeance.
The whole movie is practically Ray, Jr. Let’s see here. You get the less glamorous upbringing of a musical god’s childhood. Check. You get the group the musical god was a part of before he branched out on his own. Check. You get the musical god’s highly successful transition into a solo career. Check. You get the continued success of the musical god, despite the white music executive exuding hesitation. Check. You get his mistreatment of women. Check. You get the musical god transforming into an egotist, who ends up pushing away the people who stuck by him. Check. You get the heartfelt tribute in the credits with pictures and facts. CAN I GET A CHECK! That’s the crucial flaw with the movie. And boy, it is a gaping flaw! Everything’s so telegraphed and clichéd.
I was hyped to see this film and I found myself saddened that I would be comparing the film to Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. A tragic comparison, but there it is. Both films abandon authentic emotional involvement with the subject in order to be a huge vanity project for the subject. And the worse part? The Justin Bieber movie, despite being bland and kinda confused in its composition, is actually…sigh…a better film than this. At least it’s expected. Justin Bieber is a painfully bland, mega-douche, anger-inducing, manipulative pop star, who makes bubblegum music that isn’t gonna put him on lists with MJ and Prince.
James Brown is not that guy. He’s immensely talented and deserves a film to justify his greatness. What director Tate Taylor (the helmer of The Help) and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (who together wrote another hit from this year, Edge of Tomorrow) gave him is a shallow, thin, underwritten vanity project that basically goes, “Look at how awesome James Brown was! Look at how good a dancer he is! Look at how…er…still on top he is!” Yeah, he is. But maybe the uninitiated would like to know why. Why was he the genius that he was? Ray really dug deep into Charles’ soul and exposed not only his genius, but his weaknesses and demons and how he had to work to defeat them.
This film does little to none of that. It’s so focused on its own excess that when it tries to go for emotion, they are terse and rushed. When we are plunged into his childhood, we barely even get to spend time in it. It gives us so little detail, but just expects us to feel for him. That’s going to back to how telegraphed the movie is. It just half-heartedly goes, “Oh, look at how different he is. Look how he’s treating the women in his life. Look at how he’s treating his friends,” without really reaching any kind of emotional resonance or depth. I guess the film figured that a way of bringing you into his life was giving Brown multiple, expository monologues where he speaks directly to the camera, but they’re so peculiar in the film that it just leaves you scratching your head in puzzlement. Hell, some story conflicts are started and resolved in the drop of a hat. Consider a scene where James Brown gets into a fight with his girlfriend, DeeDee, portrayed by Jill Scott, and then within one minute, they are making out on the bed. I’m sure the filmmakers thought of it as a way to capture how crazy love is, and it is, but in a forced manner.
The thin screenplay actually does a disservice to James Brown. Because there’s no emotional involvement or any major obstacles he had to face, Brown pretty much prances around the screen as a cocky, pretentious, self-indulgent bully. It’s not like Ray Charles where we empathize with him because we want him to win the struggle between him and his demons. It’s more like, “Wow, fuck this guy. He’s a real prick.” You don’t care about him. At least, I didn’t.
However, with all the flak I’m giving the film, I will hand this to the film: the performances, for the most part, are excellent. Aloe Blacc as one of the Famous Flames, the group James Brown was originally a part of, is really wooden, but it’s a pretty short appearance. And Jill Scott tries, but it seems like she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to be doing there. Dan Aykroyd as record executive Ben Bart just…plays Dan Aykroyd. Whee!
However, Chadwick Boseman does play James Brown with a lot of charisma. It’s amazing how excellently he emulates him and how tremendous a dancer he is. Plus, It’s cool that after playing Jackie Robinson in 42, he was given the opportunity to portray another icon in pop culture whose popularity doesn’t decay with time. It’s just a shame that he’s not given a whole lot to work with. The best performance, to me, was legendary actress Viola Davis as his mother. She gives an extremely heartfelt, complex performance. Her character is plunged into situations where she’s supposed to be loving, happy, annoyed, independent, vulnerable, and woesome and Davis plays her beautifully. Her monologue to her son near the end is actually one of the more authentically emotional parts of the film, despite it being part of a plotline in the movie that’s referenced an hour after its introduction, but I digress.
In addition, it is a pleasure to hear his music onscreen and there are some well-choreographed, engaging musical sequences. However, even those could quite envelope me in their spectacle, because I was too focused on wondering whether Boseman was singing or lip-synching. Personally, I am unsure, but the fact that that was my primary focus makes me deduct a couple more points.
Lemme leave you guys with this little bit of information: James Brown was involved with drugs after he fell out of the public’s consciousness. How perfect would that be to fit into the film? To show how not having anymore hit records and time on his hands and money; what all of that can do to a celebrity? They have potential there and they wasted it. In fact, that pretty much sums up most of the movie, in the context of itself and in the summer movie season. Please, please, please just buy his music or watch a documentary of Brown if you really want to pay tribute to this musical great.
RATING: Two-and-a-half stars out of four