In one of the earliest moments from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Tim Meadows’s character Sam declares, “Dewey Cox has to think about his whole life before he plays.” The movie – a parody of musician biopics – then goes on to show us Dewey’s entire life, from childhood to death. It is a pitch perfect satire of one of the most frustrating elements of the genre, and one hopes it would be so biting that screenwriters would never be so obvious in their intentions again. But here we are, seven years later, and the new James Brown film, Get on Up, opens the exact same way. But there’s no wink here. Screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (still my favorite names in show business – that hasn’t changed since Edge of Tomorrow) play into almost all of the tropes in their depiction of the soul legend.
Chadwick Boseman (42, Draft Day) stars as James Brown, portraying the musician from his late teens to his early 60’s (Jamarion Scott plays Brown as a child). Get on Up feels like an incredibly thorough accounting of Brown’s life, from the abusive relationship between his parents (Viola Davis and Lennie James) to his discovery by Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) to his drug and legal troubles in the late 80’s. Some of these events are interesting. Others… are not. The 2 hour and 20 minute runtime feels really padded out with repetitive filler. I try not to criticize movies based solely on their lengths – luckily Get on Up is slow enough that I don’t feel too bad about it.
A lot is going to be written about how Get on Up bucks biopic convention in two ways. The big gimmick is the film’s nonlinear narrative. This movie jumps around in time more than [insert topical movie reference here]. Ultimately it comes off an attempt to cover up the fact that the movie really is just like every other biopic – right down to the meaningless cameos by other famous people such as Little Richard (Brandon Mychal Smith) or Mick Jagger (Nick Eversman). It is refreshing that the Butterworths and director Tate Taylor don’t feel the need to hold the audience’s collective hand, choosing instead to throw them right into the multiple timelines, but it can become needlessly confusing at times. The structure doesn’t bring a whole lot to the film, save for a scene late in the movie between James and his mother that illuminates a lot about James Brown’s true character.
The other big subversion of the format is the ole’ Jersey Boys trick of having the subject directly address the camera at various times throughout the movie. It is a fun bit of meta filmmaking, but I have to wonder if the Butterworths were just completely unaware of the fact that the Jersey Boys stage production had been using that mechanic for years. The fourth-wall breaking injects a little more fun into the picture, but the quieter moments – where Boseman merely looks at the camera and conveys Brown’s inner conflict without speaking it – are so much more effective.
Boseman is Get on Up‘s greatest strength. He commits fully to his portrayal of James Brown – to the extent that half of what he says in practically unintelligible. I’m pretty sure he is lip-syncing to actual Brown recordings throughout the film, but the fact that I have to question it is also a testament to his performance. I’m not sure how Boseman has gotten boxed into portraying historical Black figures, but he is a talented and charismatic performer, and I hope he gets the opportunity to take some real chances in the near future.
In the end, there just isn’t a whole lot to love about Get on Up. It is a long, dull slog, periodically interrupted by some great songs. I can’t really recommend you see this one in the theaters, unless you are a huge fan of the funk. In that case, what the hell are you waiting for?