Friday, August 8, 2014

Get On Up

The James Brown biography "Get On Up" is not a well-made movie.

The director, Tate Taylor of 2012's embarrassing "The Help," has no clue how to shoot a scene or even how to frame a shot. The intelligent viewer's ear bristles at much of the on-the-nose dialogue. The script's structure, lurching hither and yon through time, saps it of dramatic momentum. And yet, this mosaic, with its clumsily glued-on tesserae, may capture the inscrutable essence of Brown better than a more polished rendering. 

The credit goes primarily to Chadwick Boseman, who throws himself into the part as fully as any lead actor since Rhys Ifans in 2012's "Mr. Nice." Boseman had nothing to do as Jackie Robinson in last year's brain-cell-destroying hagiography "42," and even this excellent performance requires more in the way of physical and auditory verisimilitude than the plumbing of emotional depths. I hope that he will turn his focus to less beatified characters to whom we in the audience do not bring our own preconceptions. I'm eager to see what he can whip up from scratch. 

Among the others in the cast, Nelsan Ellis as Brown's pianist and backup singer Bobby Byrd deserves special mention. He can say more with a downward casting of his impossibly soulful eyes than anything in the Hydra-headed script (credited to three writers), and preserves the dignity of a man who'd envisioned himself "up front" until the moment he first heard Brown's voice. Viola Davis as Brown's birth mother Susie makes the most of her few scenes, which loosely bookend the picture. Dan Aykroyd rides a wave of affability as Brown's manager, Ben Bart. Octavia Spencer fares less well as Aunt Honey, the madam who keeps an eye on James after his father leaves him with her. There's only so much one can do with a line like, "You special, boy. You got the spirit in you." 

"Get On Up" runs a little over two-and-a-quarter hours, yet doesn't feel torturously long. Taylor shows us backstage squabbling and domestic violence - the stuff of a few hundred other biopics - but has sense enough not to stay too long at the fair. His movie stumbles along at a two-star pace but has just enough funk to get over the line at the last.

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