Papa’s got a brand new biopic
By any measure, James Brown had a heck of a life, so it’s surprising it’s taken so long for a biopic to be made. The bumper-pack of material Get On Up has to draw on is at once its biggest strength and greatest weakness. There are rich sequences here tackling both Brown’s phenomenal musicianship and importance to the black consciousness of ’60s America. But too often Tate Taylor’s (The Help) movie feels like a string of moments, rather than the coherent progression of a life story considered in retrospect.
Jumping between Brown’s dirt-poor upbringing and key career highlights (and low points) such as his 1963 Live At The Apollo triumph, his defusing of an angry Boston crowd the night after Martin Luther King was murdered and his 1988 drug-fuelled police pursuit, the film confuses more than enlightens. Occasional juxtapositions between the time periods work, but more often it feels like a funkier 21 Grams. Time and again, we’re dragged from scenes that truly sing to childhood vignettes that, after Ray and Walk The Line, feel simply rote.
Meanwhile, disputes between Brown and his band get repetitive, padding an already lengthy run-time. The second half attempts to correct this by dwelling more on Brown’s relationships with, respectively, his mother (Viola Davis) and collaborator Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), but Davis is stuck with an underwritten role while Byrd’s characterisation barely goes beyond ‘guy who’s around at the same time as James’. The end result, when the confrontations come, is a lack of interest, not high drama.
All of which is most frustrating, because Get On Up gets a large number of things right. Chadwick Boseman – soon to be Marvel’s Black Panther - is a revelation as Brown, capturing both the swagger and ego of the man and cleverly aping the famous vocal patterns without ever falling into caricature. The music is – as you’d expect – sensational, and the production design elegantly conveys the radical shifts in period. It’s a pity that the time-shuffling structure just doesn’t work.