Saturday, November 15, 2014

'Get on Up' (2014) directed by Tate Taylor

Get on Up opens with a drugged-out, incoherent, psychotic, shotgun wielding James Brown marching around an insurance brokerage.  He's babbling an incomprehensible stream of consciousness, punctuated with barks of his own name. Helpless bystanders cower under their chairs as *boom!* his shotgun blows a hole in the ceiling.  What has driven him to these towering heights of rage?

Someone took a shit in one of his toilets and didn't flush.

James Brown was insane.  Get on Up makes no bones about this.  What Tate Taylor does is try to divine the precise nature of this insanity.  We begin in rural South Carolina where James Brown (Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott and Chadwick Boseman) lives in a kind of mega-poverty.  Dressed in rags, he lives with his violent parents in a run-down shack in the middle of the woods.  He soon 'upgrades' to working in a whorehouse, sharing a small bed with a grossly obese man and hustling soldiers towards the hookers.

Things look pretty shit for James Brown.  Then one day he wanders into a church and, in a neat echo of The Blues Brothers, sees a charismatic preacher strutting about the place and decides that this is his kinda thing.  Get on Up proceeds to jump around Brown's life while maintaining a very loose chronology.  We get to see his rise to fame through the sixties, his rise to genuine superstardom in the 70s and his crowning as 'The Godfather of Soul' and hints of substance abuse to come.

There's been an awful lot of sixties music biopics recently and an awful lot of those have been bad.  Just in the last few months All Is By My Side made a tuneless hash of Jimi Hendrix's life and Jersey Boys stunk up the place with its soundtrack of squeaky clean bozo pop.   Frankly I'm getting a bit bored of scenes set inside knobs n' dials sixties recording studio where everyone is wearing turtlenecks and stupid glasses.  Give me something new for god's sake!

Fortunately while Get on Up does indeed feature precisely that scene, it's couched within a film that's not afraid to get weird.  Given that Brown was a raving egomaniac shifts towards the strange aren't so surprising, but nonetheless there's a psychedelic, almost cosmic atmosphere that often surprises.

For example, Brown frequently breaks the fourth wall, winking and smirking at the audience.  The effect is to remind us that we're being told James Brown's story from the perspective of James Brown, allowing us a peek into a perspective where James Brown is god and everything revolves around him.  Exploring this warped mind throws up some hypnotic, subtle moments of magical realism.  The preacher that initiates the young Brown into performance has clawed talons for fingers, a children's bare-knuckle boxing match gradually morphs into a soul funk strut and a climactic scene Brown is literally pursued by the ghosts of his past during a high speed chase with police.

These moments are the high points of the film, the surreal qualities rising until the film teeters and sways as if it's on the verge of collapse.  The best music biopics aren't afraid to criticise their subjects – to show them at rock bottom as well as on top.  Get on Up, with its slightly disconnected, fractured look at James Brown at least has the guts to show him beating his wife, lost in drug-addled stupors and being a total twat to his long-suffering band.  

Admittedly Get on Up glosses over just how large James Brown's propensity for beating women was, not to mention his his enthusiastic campaigning for Richard Nixon to become President and his dumbass 'bootstraps' philosophy of Black Capitalism. But even leaving those out we're still left with an idea of James Brown as someone you wouldn't like to meet, let alone work with.

There's a neat friction between this and the simple fact the James Brown is one hell of a performer.  Any worries about his delusional psychosis are swept away as you watch him groove his way across a stage with the audience in the palm of his hand - he's talented enough to get away with being crazy.  Chadwick Boseman captures this on-stage/off-stage dichtomy perfectly, allowing us to peer quizzically at a very very odd person, but never to poke fun at him.  Granted, Boseman is aided in the live performances by Brown's vocals being dubbed over his own, but his physical performance is so strong that the effect is invisible.

The only places the film comes undone are in some slightly iffy pacing issues.  At nearly two and a half hours there are moments where the film feels rather flabby; and as we watch yet another scene of the young Brown in miserable poverty we find ourselves wishing we can get to the fun parts where he starts singing the hits.  The closing scenes of the film are similarly rather superfluous, the performances drowned out by a sea of unconvincing old-age latex prostheses glued to the actor's faces.

I came out of this shuffling and boogying, happily humming snippets of James Brown's eminently catchy discography.  It's an interesting, occasionally brave, portrait of a madman. Watching someone slowly lose themselves inside an ego and slide into violence and drug abuse is, at minimum, interesting, and the best bits of Get on Up are spent wondering just what the hell this maniac is going to do next.  An above average entry to the bulging music biopic canon, but not quite an essential one.


Get on Up is released November 21st

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