Director Tate Taylor is apparently desperate to stake his reputation upon being associated with shit. In 2011’s “The Help” (Taylor’s whitewash trivialization of a chapter in the 1960’s civil rights movement), perhaps the most infamous scene of the movie involves a pie containing human excrement. Now, in 2014’s “Get On Up”, a mainstream-cleansed biopic about the life of the legendary James Brown, Taylor includes an opening bit involving Brown (an impressive Chadwick Boseman) threatening a group of frightened white folks with a gun–because one dared to use the bathroom in a building he owns. It may seem an odd choice to begin a movie with (apparently it has basis in fact), but in a way it’s perfectly fitting. Tate Taylor’s work is full of crap.
The screenplay from Jez and John-Henry Butterworth plays a lot of the “hits”, but much of it is homogenized to blandness. Plus, the technique of this bio-film stuff is achingly familiar. The hardscrabble beginning, some teenage troubles with the law, the discovery of talent–the fame, the riches, bad marriages, substance abuse, the downfall, the comeback…we’ve seen it all before. Along the way we meet Brown friend Bobby Byrd (a strong Nelsan Ellis), savvy manager Ben Bart (a solid Dan Aykroyd), and put-open, eventual prostitute, mother Susie Brown (a slumming, but effective, Viola Davis). There’s also interjections of social and political awareness that feel fabricated and orchestrated. Again–full of crap. James Brown deserved better.
There are definite highlights though. Chadwick Boseman’s fine performance/impersonation of “the Godfather of Soul” is nearly enough to save it. His mannerisms, vocal mimicry and dance moves seem completely authentic. Boseman does Brown justice, while the script plays it safe. James Brown was electric, fiery–and obviously dangerous. But the aforementioned “bathroom incident” is directed in a way that plays for laughs. Plus, it’s more than hinted that Brown could be physically abusive to his wives–but then a punch he apparently gives one in their home is played off-camera. It appears to be an attempt to not make Brown seem so bad. Epic fail. Despite some admirable performances, the film fails to allow Brown’s story to spark to life. And to consistently have Boseman (as Brown) breaking the fourth wall, was an unwise choice too. What a shame.