by Ashley Clark
[Editor’s note: an edited version of this review first appeared in the October issue of Sight & Sound Magazine, which hit shelves in early September. The film’s UK release was put back a couple of months after the mag went to print, so the review was unfortunately published way ahead of schedule.]
With his debut The Help (2011) — a whimsical, formally conservative Driving Miss Daisy for the ‘post-racial’ generation — director Tate Taylor offered little indication that he’d be the most appropriate choice to bring the life of the electrifying, pioneering funk musician James Brown to screen. Yet within moments, any notion that Taylor has played it similarly safe are up in smoke; PCP smoke, to be precise.
Get On Up begins in Atlanta in 1988, where an evidently high Brown (Chadwick Boseman, giving an energetic and charismatic performance), clad in a green velour tracksuit, marches into his offices, and reacts furiously upon discovering that an interloper has had the nerve to use his toilet: a transgression he can discern by the lingering smell (“Which one of you gentle folks hung a number two in my commode?”) Brown fires his shotgun into the ceiling, reprimands the culprit, then stares straight down the camera in a baroquely Brechtian flourish, beckoning us to join him on his journey of memory. Repurposing this bizarre incident — which allegedly really happened — constitutes a boldly disarming way to kick off a major Hollywood biopic, and is curiously microcosmic of what follows: a portrait that’s irreverent, loose and often fun; but also deeply strange, chronically indisciplined and never quite serious enough about its subject.
Beginning with Brown at his lowest point might imply that a traditional rags-to-riches-to-rags arc is to come, but Taylor and British screenwriters Jez and John Henry Butterworth (who wrote the recent, chronologically playful blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow) fashion an elastic narrative which, initially at least, places proceedings closer to experimental cinema than any traditional biopic template. Key influences seem to be Shirley Clarke’s Ornette: Made in America (1985), an elliptical documentary about the saxophonist Ornette Coleman, which uses an actor to portray its subject as a small child in flashbacks; and Francois Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), in which discrete stories clatter together to conjure an impressionistic vision of its enigmatic pianist subject. In its first 20-or-so minutes, the equally impressionistic Get On Up hops from Vietnam in 1968 (where a boisterous Brown arrives to play music, and harangue the U.S. Army), to dreamlike passages of a troubled childhood in 1939 Alabama, where alcoholism, abuse, and nebulously-rendered racism lurk in the shadows. We then jump from a 1964 support gig by Brown’s first band for The Rolling Stones, to a press conference at an airport (a scenario which is frequently returned to, and acts as the closest thing the film has to a framing device.) The filmmakers’ desire to do something different with the form is laudable, but the bizarre editing and wild tonal oscillations prove exhausting rather than exhilarating.
The film’s bells, whistles, smoke and mirrors ultimately render Brown an enigma, but Boseman’s nuanced performance at least hints at his character’s transformation from cocky, gauche extrovert into a shark-like businessman who’s as much of a performer offstage as on it. It’s telling (perhaps also of the filmmakers’ priorities) that the sudden death of Brown’s manager, Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) is depicted as the single life event that hits Brown the hardest. The death of Brown’s son Teddy in 1973, by contrast, is skirted over in quite literally a matter of seconds, while the portrayal of his relationship with wife Deirdre (Jill Scott) is comically undercooked. If it is Brown who’s supposed to be telling this story, as the inconsistently-applied fourth-wall breakage implies, it never feels like he has much control over it. Sometimes, the use of the straight-to-camera gambit is downright bewildering, such as the late scene where Brown punches his wife in the face, then wanders up to the camera and stares at the viewer with a gormless expression.
Get On Up‘s biggest flaw — other than the rather pedestrian nature of its musical sequences, and a tendency to suggest Brown’s signature talent was somehow magical rather than the result of militaristically rigorous practice — is its failure to engage directly with why Brown meant so much to African-American audiences in the politically tumultuous 1960s and 70s. Brown was a complex, contradictory figure — he considered arch-segregationist and South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond a mentor figure — but his commitment to black self-actualisation was unambiguous and influential. One snippet of ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’, and a couple of shots of Brown sporting a dashiki hardly suffice. The filmmakers (a white director and two white screenwriters) have the time to include cosily apologetic jokes about the white appropriation, and misunderstanding of, black culture, but they’d have been better served tackling what made Brown’s black audiences tick.