Friday, August 1, 2014

Get On Up: An artistic downer

Get On Up (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, sexual candor, drug use, violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang 

Rarely has a strong starring performance been sabotaged so thoroughly by a film’s core structure.

During what begins as a casual chat following a successful concert performance, Bobby
(Nelsan Ellis, right) makes the mistake of sharing some of his own musical dreams with
longtime friend and colleague James Brown (Chadwick Boseman). Big mistake: Of all
people, Bobby should have known that in Brown's world, there's only room for one ego.
Chadwick Boseman impressed us last year with his dignified, finely shaded portrayal of baseball great Jackie Robinson, in 42. Boseman is simply amazing here, as “godfather of soul” James Brown: the voice; the earthy charisma; the electrifying, bone-defying dance moves; and most particularly the soul-shattered instability. It’s a performance for the ages.

Too bad it’s buried in such a clumsy and maladroit package.

One generally blames the director for the totally of a film; he is, after all, the guy who signs off on every take, oversees the editing and assembly of words, images and music. I’m reluctant to do so in this case, because Tate Taylor certainly deserves credit for coaxing such a galvanic performance from Boseman ... and, to only a slightly lesser degree, from the equally talented Nelsan Ellis, just a memorable in a supporting role as Brown’s longtime friend and musical colleague, Bobby Byrd.

Taylor, after all, guided Octavia Spencer to an Academy Award for her fine work in The Help, a thoroughly absorbing adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s book, which also garnered a Best Picture nod and acting nominations for Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain. The man clearly knows how to elicit the best from his actors.

On the other hand, Taylor obviously didn’t recognize the serious deficiencies in this biographical portrait. Censure more deservedly goes to scripters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Steven Baigelman, for the bewildering and off-putting manner in which they’ve chosen to tell Brown’s story.

The film begins very poorly, and you’ll likely want to bolt during the distasteful and downright weird prologue: an incident from late in Brown’s career, when mental demons have transformed him into an unstable, potentially dangerous lunatic. This sequence is “expanded” from a real-life meltdown that led to his arrest in September 1988, and six-year jail term (of which he served three years).

But absent any context, it’s impossible to view this scene as anything but disrespectful: a thoroughly unpalatable introduction to a man who meant so much to the music world. It’s also not one of Boseman’s better moments; he’s not able to sell Brown’s volatility in a way that enhances the drama. Even much later, when the narrative has come full circle to better explain this sequence — and its aftermath — we remain unsatisfied.

Of all the places to begin this drama, Taylor went with that one?

Equally damaging is the way in which this script meanders through half a dozen key pivot points in Brown’s career, bouncing back and forth in time, presumably to “explain” our protagonist’s behavior at a given moment, by whisking us back to a telling incident years earlier ... and then zapping further forward, just as capriciously. It feels like a preview of coming attractions for the very movie we’re watching, and that’s daft.

Thus, before much of anything else, we get a depiction of Brown’s historic performance in The T.A.M.I. (Teen Age Music International) Show, a legendary rock/pop extravaganza in Santa Monica, Calif., which became a pivotal 1964 concert film (which, at the time, horrified conservative viewers who couldn’t abide the sight of so many white kids hoppin’ and boppin’ to a black performer); and then a fleeting glimpse of the hair-raising plane trip to a 1968 USO performance in Vietnam, when the band nearly gets shot out of the sky; and then, whoops, we’re suddenly watching an idyllic romp between adolescent James and his mother, Susie (Viola Davis), in dirt-poor, Depression-era South Carolina.

It all feels quite random.

Eventually, thankfully, Taylor lingers long enough on individual segments, allowing us to get a sense of Brown’s horrific childhood, his tempestuous teen years and the lucky break that put him on the road to stardom: a chance encounter with Byrd while Brown is serving a stint in juvie. Historical accounts differ as to how Brown actually achieved parole; the filmmakers choose to go with the endearing legend that Byrd persuaded his family to take in this total stranger, who then became the galvanic frontman for his new best friend’s band, from that point onward performing as The Famous Flames.

By this point, as well, Boseman has won us over with the smooth moves and silver-tongued patter of a born hustler. Already, as well, we recognize that while Brown may be an operator, he’s no charlatan; genuine talent propels his manic drive for recognition, for artistic control, for a stage on which to strut his stuff, and a means to share his sound with the wider world.

The latter comes after a chance encounter with Little Richard (a hilariously dead-on Brandon Smith), a relationship writ much smaller here than in real life, but somewhat more dreamily.

Which, actually, characterizes the entire film. This is less an historically accurate depiction of Brown’s persona and career ascent, and more a strawberry-lensed “flavor” of the man and his music. It’s myth-making, not drama ... and, to quote the reporter’s closing quote to James Stewart’s character, in 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Taylor & Co. depict the legend, not the man: an artistic decision amplified by cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt’s frequent close-ups on Boseman, as he breaks the fourth wall to give us a wink, a knowing stare or even a bit of self-defensive dialogue. It’s certainly appropriate that Brown would choose to “tell us” his story in such a manner; it fits the media-obsessed celebrity’s personality.

At times, this technique is downright exciting, and just as dazzling as the key concert moments replicated for this film: the 1962 Apollo Theater performance; the 1964 T.A.M.I. Show (although the inclusion there of vintage footage is a bit strange); the 1968 Boston Garden gig, bravely mounted in the immediate aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, and one of this film’s best depictions of Brown’s skill as persuasive peacemaker; and the full-on funk at Paris’ Olympia Theater in 1971.

On the other hand, for a script that claims to be “unapologetic,” we get no more than lip service regarding Brown’s constant brushes with the law, his drug abuse, his massive tax delinquencies and — most notably — his misogyny and frequent arrests for domestic violence. The latter, at least, is granted screen time via his unsettling relationships with various women, most notably second wife Deidre “DeeDee” Jenkins (Jill Scott, well remembered as Precious Ramotswe in the marvelous adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books).

These moments are stomach-churning, particularly the unexpectedly violent assaults. Granted, by this point the foundation has been laid, with Brown’s behavior explained (but certainly not excused) by an upbringing that included an abusive father, a negligent mother — herself a prostitute — and a benevolent but obviously unfit substitute parent in the form of brothel madam Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer).

As depicted here, Brown has little regard for women in general: a view expressed quite pointedly — and repellently, for any feminists within earshot — during a candid conversation with Bobby.

That is this film’s key relationship: a bond that begins as a friendship between equals, but soon devolves into Bobby’s quiet acceptance of Brown’s increasingly arrogant behavior, the latter initially surfacing when the rest of the Famous Flames find themselves also-rans behind their lead singer’s name, on the group’s first single. Ellis, well recognized from his long stint as Lafayette on HBO’s True Blood, projects considerable warmth, devotion and increasingly troubled concern through his sad eyes and resigned bearing.

True friends stay by our side no matter what, through thick and thin ... but Bobby gets so little in return, that Ellis’ stoic silence soon becomes heartbreaking.

The film’s other seminal bond is between Brown and his longtime manager/agent, Ben Bart, played with amiable sincerity by Dan Aykroyd: his finest, most subtly shaded work since his Oscar-nominated performance in 1990’s Driving Miss Daisy. As presented, Bart is the one person who can give advice that Brown will consider, and sometimes even act upon. More often, though, Bart is the cautionary angel on Brown’s shoulder, sometimes helping the performer be a better version of himself.

We’ve long accepted that artistic arrogance can be justified by superlative results, and that’s certainly the case with Brown. Boseman skillfully conveys the cocky assurance that led Brown to dispute music-industry “experts” (rich white guys) who, for example, refused the expense required to produce a live concert album; Brown therefore self-financed the history-making LP recorded during his 1962 Apollo Theater concert. He re-invented his sound constantly, often arguing with band members who worried about hitting their notes before or after a down- or back-beat; Craig Robinson, as lead saxman Maceo Parker, endures most of the abuse resulting from such “discussions.”

Davis is shattering as the forlorn, self-destructive Susie, forever torn between flickering material instincts and deluded notions of self-preservation. Davis’ shining moment comes during a later encounter with her son, after he has become famous: a deeply uncomfortable exchange that we know will be their last.

Spencer is appropriately feisty as the tart-tongued Aunt Honey, and twins Jordan and Jamarion Scott share the role of the adolescent James, enduring ghastly hardship in a Southern environment that — as just one appalling example — forces young black boys into boxing rings, where they beat each other to submission.

Scott makes us supremely nervous as DeeDee, the wife who unwisely encourages Brown’s baser instincts; Jacinte Blankenship displays greater wisdom as Velma, Brown’s first wife.

On the other hand, I’ve no idea what to make of weird cameo appearances by Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey, as a racist couple who encounter the band in New Orleans, make some horrid remarks, but later are seen dancing to Brown’s music. What the heck...?

Get On Up certainly has its moments, most of them thanks to Boseman and the faithfully recreated music (authentic recordings by Brown and his various combo co-stars, layered atop lip- and instrument-synching by the actors). And I suppose the film concludes well, with a key reunion of two long-estranged friends.

Taylor’s handling of actors aside, though, this saga is uneven, at times even displaying what feels like troublesome racial stereotyping. A fascinating film — better yet, a long-form miniseries — deserves to be made from James Brown’s tempestuous life ... but this ain’t it.

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