Title: Get On Up
Director: Tate Taylor
Major Players: Chadwick Boseman, Dan Aykroyd, Octavia Spencer
Out Of Five: 3
It’s no wonder the movie industry likes bio-pics about musicians. They’re big names with colourful lifestyles, making them perfect for the big screen – and there’s always the chance of a soundtrack on the side. The musician him/herself is often a plum role for an actor as well – Joaquin Phoenix (Johnny Cash in Walk The Line) and Sissy Spacek (Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter) would no doubt agree. The early days of Jimi Hendrix have already put in an appearance this year, Ben Wishaw looks set to play Freddie Mercury and now we have the life and times of The Godfather Of Soul himself, James Brown, in Get On Up.
There’s big names – and, no doubt, big money – attached to this one. Mick Jagger is a producer, even though the Stones are regarded with contempt by Brown early on in the film. Jez Butterworth, author of the multi-award winning play Jerusalem, wrote the screenplay. Tate Taylor, the director whose previous offering The Help, was nominated for several Oscars. And then you’ve a charismatic and eccentric central character, electric on stage, a musical legend of the 20th century and instantly recognisable to the ear.
The young James starts his life in grinding poverty, living in a shack in the countryside. His parents fight, his mother leaves and his father decides to go his own way as well, leaving the boy with his aunt, who runs a bordello. James learns to survive on his own and, through a chance meeting with Bobby Byrd – his eventual long-term friend and collaborator – joins a gospel choir. His talent is obvious, as is the fact that he should be a front man, and the film charts his rise to the top and the difficulties that went with his success.
Which makes the film sound like a straightforward bio-pic, along the lines of James Mangold’s Walk The Line. But it isn’t – and it walks behind it for a number of reasons.
It’s clearly a heartfelt project for Taylor, so he wants to give as comprehensive a picture of Brown as possible. So much so that he puts too much in. At 2 hours 20 minutes, it needs nipping and tucking. He’s also tried to do something different in terms of the bio-pic structure and it’s a bold move. Although the film starts with the young James and his parents, the key moments of his life then jump backwards and forwards. Sometimes it works, when there’s a clear connection between the two sequences, but sometimes that link is blurred, which the switchback frustrating, showy even. Taylor’s probably tried a little bit too hard to be clever, and it’s only partly come off.
Some individually pitch-perfect scenes stick in your mind. Brown meeting his mother once he’s become successful and, essentially, paying her off, is right on the button. It’s full of anger, bitterness and regret and is probably the best scene in the entire film. The concert sequences are strong, especially the one in Boston, the night after the assassination of Martin Luther King, when emotions run especially high.
I’m not so sure that Chadwick Boseman was the right choice to play Brown. For a start, he’s hampered by the work of the make-up department to make him look like the real thing. The extraordinary set of teeth – almost an undershot jaw – means he’s difficult to understand sometimes. And, inevitably, the hairdressers had a ball too, creating some seriously extravagant quiffs. They haven’t wasted their time, but when it comes to nailing the person, he has varying degrees of success. The fact that he doesn’t do his own singing – that’s all down to Brown – isn’t a problem, but he can’t quite capture the magnetism and near megalomania of the man. What does come across is his razor sharp business brain and his nerve in bucking the established system in the music business. He’s not so much the Godfather as the Godson Of Soul.
As if to accentuate his shortcomings, there’s a real quality supporting cast, not the least of which is Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd. The real Byrd, by the way, acted as a historical consultant on the film. His is the less showy part, someone who realised he could never be the front man and always had to settle for being number two, yet he’s a loyal and supportive friend – and Ellis is superb. Viola Davis is just as good as Brown’s mother, as is Octavia Spencer as his feisty aunt and Dan Aykroyd as the one manager who could control him. Just watch how the singer goes off the rails after his manager’s death.
Get On Up has the sort of guts that you’d associate with Brown himself in its attempt to take a different approach to the music bio-pic. But it doesn’t come off and you find yourself wishing that Taylor had taken a slightly more straightforward approach to film and re-directed some of that courage in his selection of leading man.
Get On Up is on general release from Friday, 21 November.