Review: Chadwick Boseman’s Performance Saves ‘Get On Up’ From Being an Incoherent Ride

Review: Chadwick Boseman's Performance Saves 'Get On Up' From Being an Incoherent Ride

Last year, producer Brian Grazer faced criticism surrounding his planned James Brown biopic, after news that original director Spike Lee was replaced by “The Help” helmer Tate Taylor. The then untitled movie had been decades in the making – Grazer had bought the rights and consulted with Brown himself well before the singer’s death in 2006. But with Brown’s passing, Grazer eventually lost the rights, and whatever Lee’s original vision had been (Wesley Snipes was his pick to star) gave way to what is now the highly anticipated “Get On Up”.

When asked in an interview how he felt about numerous complaints over a new (white) filmmaker stepping into Lee’s spot, Grazer said: “…I don’t see the world that way… I’ve made so many movies where I’ve supported black artists. Tate made ‘The Help’, and that had almost an entirely black population.”

The ongoing discussion about white filmmakers telling black stories aside, Tate Taylor did indeed direct the “The Help,” and in “Get On Up,” it shows. Which is to say, despite its highlights (chief among them, its star Chadwick Boseman), it is a slightly sanitized, shamelessly Oscar-baiting, overly eager to please movie. And, much like “The Help,” it addresses the racial politics surrounding Brown, but never gets quite comfortable enough to fully and honestly engage with them.   

Because there is James Brown, and then there is the myth of James Brown. 

Taylor and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth struggle in picking what story to tell. Brown’s life is not presented in chronological order, instead jumping from decade to decade in vignettes that attempt to reveal what made him the superstar he became. 

We’re introduced to Brown as an older man, during his brief decline in the late 1980s. We shift over to a glossy technicolor reimagining of his landmark “Live At the Apollo” recording in ‘63. Next, dreamlike images of an impoverished childhood in the 1940s South, then a cut over to his first performance with The Famous Flames, over to his meeting with LBJ at the White House, and so on.

Grazer admits that the studio “had to be convinced that this was a movie that could be made.”

There were evidently several rewrites of the script prior to production, and this is unsurprising. The out-of-order storytelling is an interesting flourish, but would have be more effective if it had some focus – barely sketched out characters played by stellar actors, including Octavia Spencer and Dan Aykroyd (as Brown’s manager Ben Bart) flit in and out of the periphery. 

Some appearances are little more than glorified cameos – Tika Sumpter as Yvonne Fair, one of Brown’s most famous backup singers and mistresses, has literally one line, and never directly interacts with Brown on screen. What was the point of including her at all?

Two of the more captivating and better utilized supporting players are “True Blood” star Nelsan Ellis as Brown’s best friend and musical collaborator, Bobby Byrd, and Viola Davis as his estranged mother. It is Brown’s relationship with these figures that provides the foundation for the most compelling scenes – scenes that reveal, if only fleetingly, the complex parts of Brown, the ugly parts of Brown – his insecurities, fear of abandonment, stubbornness, violence, regret.

But the most important aspect of any biopic is the actor who plays the subject, and it is Chadwick Boseman who saves this film. It helps that Boseman, who made his leading man debut in “42” last year, is a relative unknown. To play a figure as iconic, as familiar, and as parodied as Brown, the role needed an actor without his own veneer of celebrity.

Boseman pulls off a tightrope walk of a performance, never falling over towards the side of impersonation. He gracefully navigates another awkward storytelling device in the script – fourth-wall-breaking moments – when he looks into the camera and talks directly to the audience. 

In his musical performances, all high points, he manages to capture the energy and almost superhuman physicality that made Brown’s live shows so legendary. There’s an eerie moment when Boseman, as an older Brown, walks down a dark corridor towards a concert stage – for a few brief seconds, it’s genuinely difficult to tell if it is the actor, or Brown himself, sauntering towards the camera.

The pacing may be messy, the direction disjointed, but its a testament to James Brown that his story and his music can ultimately withstand whatever structural flaws that plague this movie. The joy here is in reveling in Brown’s most iconic songs, and his complicated genius. Really, there are two electrifying performances we are watching – “James Brown,” and Chadwick Boseman as James Brown. There’s a satisfying overlap of seeing not only aspects of the real-life Brown come to life through the actor, but appreciating the craft and the mechanics of Boseman as a performer himself.  Without him, “Get On Up” would be an amusing, if woefully incoherent ride.

Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

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Comments

thejumbalia

This is a good and balanced review. This doesn’t usually happen, but I agree with everything you said. Honesty.

CareyCarey

Reggie said it for me (minus the worst movie line)… but now the good stuff. 1. Viola Davis's performance (as small as it was) is arguably the best in the film. The movie could have used much more of her 2. I've been hard on Chadwick Boseman… so now I have to eat a bit of crow. The man actually captured the entire nature of James Brown. His voice, his dance moves, his lower Georgia (and uneducated) accent and the look, Chadwick killed it all. 3. If one's a fan of early R&B/"soul" music, this movie is worth the price of admission. 4. My lady loved it. She was dancing in her seat, snapping her fingers and singing along, so I'm cool.

Reggie

Either I'm too emotionally tied to the Black experience or just totally out of step with today's culture, but the reviews I've been reading about Get on Up are jaw dropping. Without reservation, it was one of the worst movies I've ever seen. The story lacked any kind of fluidity in terms of depicting Mr. Brown's life, leaving the viewer with snippets of concerts and rehearsals. As one inspired by the Say it Loud and the Godfather of Soul during my youth, I viewed the movie as a caricature of a great man. Mr. Brown imposed Black culture on the American landscape and forced White America to seek acceptance. He unapologetically exhorted Black America to pursue community wealth with the collective Black dollar and , in song, spoke to the evils of the deadly heroin scourge that plagued the Black community. Mr. Brown was arguably the first Black star to cause near hysteria at the mere mention of his concerts. The film haphazardly illustrated a narcissistic ego maniac.

Akimbo

Chadwick was good, Viola rocked the hell out of her scene, Jill Scott and Tika Sumpter looked amazing, movie was cheesy.

Elecia

Boseman was FABULOUS. He must get an oscar nomination for his performance. Never a dull moment. I did not want it to end. Don't listen to the negative reviews.

Eddie Goines

Chadwick! Congrats man. Going this weekend. Can't wait!

Linda

Great movie!! I'm just glad it was made. Chadwick was fantastic. Loved James Brown. Test in peace. Do another one, fast.

davyjc

I just saw the film tonight and the performances were amazing. The reviewer is correct – Boseman performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination. The actual story of the film is another thing all together. My biggest problem – the script never really reveals the impact Brown had on music in general and the civil rights movement in particular. Having grown up with his music, when "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud" came out, cities all over the country were shouting that song everywhere raising the stakes for social change in the black community. It was a political message introduced by Brown either cynically or deliberately but he was soon seen as more than just an entertainer. The film felt like a chamber story interspersed with live performances, flashbacks inside of flashbacks, story threads that go nowhere, characters introduced then dropped at random. It's a mess of a narrative. In the end you're left without feeling any emotion at all. I hope people see it for Boseman and Ellis work but maybe it's time to stop doing biopics because lives are messy and big and ultimately hard to call cinema.

Gio

I saw a screening of this film over a month ago. And I have to say, there was nothing new in it that I did not already know about James Brown. I remember after watching “Ray” and “Ali” I felt like I learned so much about Ray Charles and Muhammad Ali. Whereas with “Get On Up”, don't expect that in this film. I will admit, the two good things about this film are 1) Chadwick Boseman; and 2) if you love James Brown’s music, you will get a lot of it. But other than that, there really isn't much substance to this film. Also, I hope Chadwick Boseman’s next project is not another bio pic. I would love to see him in a film that allows him to portray a character that’s been developed from scratch.

Darkan

I've never seen so many plants on one bord in my life. Smdh.

Peace82

Looking forward to seeing this. I loved The Help and Taylor's been doing great work for years with other films. Even before he directed the Help. Also I've been a Spike Lee fan for many years and I question the outcome of his version on JB's biopic. Especially with Wesley Snipes. For starters I doubt Wesley would be able to do Mr. Brown's downhome southern dialect. Because Chadwick nails it!

Dante

Wow, this is getting really great reviews from critics. Can't wait to see it tomorrow. So happy for Chadwick.

Mugizi

I saw it last week at a preview screening and really liked it.

The reviewer is correct that it is a bit disjointed, but the musical performances are good, and it hits all the high notes.

It is true that it is a bit sanitized as it doesn't dwell too much on more controversial aspects of Brown's life (e.g. drug use, domestic abuse, fights with bandmates, affairs). All these are mentioned briefly, but more or less glossed over.

But overall it is a very energetic and fun movie and will make you want to go and check out the music and maybe even dance a little.

Christina

Very good review. I could instantly tell from the trailer the movie was directed by a white person and that it would be somewhat sanitized. James Brown was a fascinating person and entertainer who is worthy of more than one biopic. Hopefully there will be better executed features by quality black directors about him in the future.

Shanae

I'm happy the film is being made and that Boseman is getting some accolades. I thought he was magnificent in 42. What does it mean, though, that he's playing in these biopics? What will he do when there are no more brown skin firsts to film? Anywho, I have to say how disgusted I am by this comment from Grazer, "“Tate made ‘The Help’, and that had almost an entirely black population.” – really? Why did he use the word population?

patrick

Really happy this movie is getting good reviews and Chadwick is getting flat out raves. Can't wait for tomorrow.

PS. The Color Purple, What's Love Got to do with, Beloved, The Josephine Baker Story, and Ray where all directed by white directors and turned out great. If the reviews are correct I will add Tate Taylor the list. Based on Spike Lee track record recently who would have made an awful film. I loved the 90s Spike Lee but he has went way down hill. Just because he is black I am not going to give him a pass. This is 2014.

Patch Neck Red

Great review looking forward to seeing this film.

Good

You are a good reviewer in that this review was well-written and kept me very interested throughout. I hope you review all the fall movies. It's not usual to see a review from what I assume you are – a black female. As a black female, I appreciate your point of view very much.

Ol Skool

Oscar bait! Yum-yummy, I love Oscar Meyer wieners. But wait, based on this review I believe my nose is deceiving me.

Okay, now I got it. This isn't Oscar's classic bronze delicacy made from turkey, chicken and pork, this smells like dew worms wrapped in a "Brown" skin envelope (pun intended). And…

"Grazer admits that the studio had to be convinced that this was a movie that could be made"

Translation: Lets piss on some black folks… telling them it's sweet brown rain. Then they'll all jump aboard this woefully incoherent Night Train.

kjmlm

I get what you are saying. It felt a lot less biopic and more musical. I feel like I need to go research more about his life because I only got tidbits. But like Ray it made me more interested in the music. I want to compare those two films. You are right get on up is all over the place. Plan to write a review too.

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