Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Get On Up"

Few cinematic subgenres are as predictable and trite as musical biographies. Most great art comes from tremendous mental and social pain so it’s no surprise that the lives of so many singers, composers and musicians – particularly male ones – are punctuated with drugs, violence and anguish. Yet one can't help but feel that the musical biopics churned out by Hollywood tend to all tell the same story about the same person with little regard for the tumultuous workings of the individual soul that set us all apart and just as little talent for showing how each artist’s music articulates that. Get On Up, while not as mothballed as Ray or as aggressively maudlin as Dreamgirls, does not manage to break that trend. Clearly aware of the propensity for uniformity that stultify their film’s category, director Tate Taylor and the Butterworth Brothers make appreciable attempts to breathe the same contradictory essence of rebelliousness and megalomania that runs through James Brown’s art but do not possess sufficient creativity to think outside the “prestige picture” box. They do however possess a wild card in their favour, and his name is Chadwick Boseman.

Almost single-handedly preventing Get On Up from being unremarkable, Boseman instills James Brown’s body and soul with the incandescent energy of a personified ego channeling the id’s impulses into a state of controlled destruction. It’s hard to do justice to how perfectly he embodies Brown in every way that Taylor and the Butterworths fail to. His semi-high-pitched hoarseness commands as much awe in the film’s showpieces as it invites sadness during his temper tantrums. Never using the man’s attention-seeking egomania as an excuse to indulge in the same behaviour, as Waltz did with Walter Keane in Big Eyes, Boseman treats Brown with respect for the man’s genius, complexity and occasional nastiness that Taylor and the Butterworths only touch upon timidly. Scenes of domestic violence against his second wife are featured but their ramifications and meaning, other than the obvious imitation of his father (Lennie James) similarly abusing his mother (Viola Davis), are never explored, as if they were written, shot and edited into the film solely as a lip-service acknowledgement of his uglier side. Similarly, 2005 allegations of a rape committed in 1988 are never brought up, as the film ends in 1993 with Brown reconciling with longtime friend and collaborator Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, whose gentle portrayal of continually absorbed humiliations complements Boseman’s exuberance perfectly).


The lack of impact of these scenes is partially the result of Taylor’s disorganized direction. It oscillates between the academicism of his previous Oscar-baiting stinker The Help – one of the worst films ever to be nominated for Best Picture – and a more daring Scorsesean drive – particularly evident in scenes where Brown suddenly turns and moves to the camera while describing his life, Wolf Of Wall Street-style – without truly finding its footing. It unintentionally resembles Brown’s unsteady vacillation between the entrepreneurial American self-made man myth and the radical call of his embattled fellow blacks, but without ever communicating it in a significant and satisfactory manner. The closest Taylor gets to it comes during Brown’s famous 1968 concert in Boston shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in which Brown’s uncomfortable position – literally standing between white political authority and black popular rage – is exemplified by fluctuating choices of camera angles and positions (high angle frontal shots vs. low-angle side shots). While these occasional moments of cleverness suggest Tate Taylor may not be the uninspired hack The Help seemed to indicate, they do demonstrate his inaptitude at breaking the self-imposed constraints taught by current Hollywood cinematic thought. Happily, there is another, more positive thing Get On Up demonstrates, and that is the inestimable value of a particularly charismatic actor. By the time Get On Up will have faded from collective memory, only one thing will remain of it: The confirmation of Chadwick Boseman’s magnetic power.

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