DIR: Tate Taylor • WRI: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth • PRO: Brian Grazer, Trish Hofmann, Erica Huggins, Mick Jagger, Victoria Pearman •DOP: Stephen Goldblatt • ED: Michael McCusker • DES: Mark Ricker• MUS: Thomas Newman • CAST: Chadwick Boseman, Dan Aykroyd, Fred Melamed
Any promotional material you read/view/hear for Tate Taylor’s Get On Up, the long-awaited James Brown biopic the world’s been fawning for since Christmas Day, 2006 (the day the self-scrawled “Godfather of Soul” passed), will name the seminal soul singer as an almost deity-like figure, epitomizing the African American experience from the early 1960s onward in musical form. As the stunning Chad Boseman chimes as an elderly Brown in the film’s opening scenes, “there’s some of me in every record you own”. Similar claims have been made by many a tiresome music biopic over the last decade and a half but approximately zero actor-director combo’s have pulled off the trick so convincingly as Taylor and Boseman do in Get On Up, which easily blows the former’s mediocre predecessor The Help out of its shallow waters to the point of game-changing.
The film bravely opens with an event for which Brown is arguably better known (certainly in lower brow circles) than for his entire discography combined, that being the drug-addled police-chase he embarked on in the days following his son’s death in 1988. The sequence, which opens with a frank shot of Brown’s hand adding angel-dust to a joint, includes at least two moments when the lead breaks the fourth wall, setting a new precedent for the drug-fuelled rock biopic beyond the woe-be-me hymns hummed by the likes of Walk the Line and Ray in that, rather than ignoring the nostalgic factor filmmakers inevitably approach such subjects with, Taylor uses a device most successfully used recently in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson, in that he allows his subject bear the burden of agency in the telling of the tale. If this film shies away from darkness and murk it is because it is nothing more than Brown’s own spin on things, and begrudgers be damned.
As with other biopics that have allowed their subjects agency (the best example being Andrew Domink’s Chopper) the film is held together by a powerful, cohesive lead performance. Relative unknown Chad Boseman will not bear the subtitle long. He emanates sexuality with every lunge and whelp. His performance soars to such heights it negates the relatively fluffy acting surrounding him throughout, Dan Ackroyd seeming the most oddly miscast addition.
Credit due too in large to the script also, which meanders around chronology at an easy pace, dealing anecdotes as a means to a thematic narrative rather than the more traditional model excellently lampooned in Walk Hard. It is shot with the usual High Definition glitz we’ve come to expect from any film set even a little bit in the seventies, which works a dream for the highly-charged performances but jars uneasily with the murkier aspects of Brown’s life Taylor attempts to tackle, which is perhaps why he spends so few times in those moments. It does occasionally feel it needs Scroobius Pip quoted in its general direction (“…just a band”) but at least these flaws may be logically solved by the device of Brown addressing the camera: it’s his story and he’ll tell it how he wishes; with him at the centre.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Get On Up is released 21st November 2014