4.5 out of 10
“Get On Up” is a prime example of a director trying to do too much. The film has some great aspects and excellent moments, but these are lost in a sea of disjointed cinematic techniques. Ultimately the problems outweigh the positives and this film falls flat, C flat.
Any spoilers will be clearly marked so you can avoid reading them if you so choose.
“Get On Up” opens in Baltimore on August 1, 2014.
Chadwick Boseman (“42”) as James Brown is fantastic. He absolutely nails the role and delivers an ultra-realistic character. Boseman is surrounded by other fantastic performances. The cast does a terrific job bringing the all-important emotion and connection to the screen. It is very easy to feel happy, sad, depressed, concerned and all the other emotions on the roller coaster, right along with these characters. In a biographical drama this is paramount, and “Get On Up” went platinum.
When director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) decides to give the audience a musical number, it is phenomenal. It is pretty hard to deliver a boring James Brown musical number. The man was a musical genius and it is hard not to stand up and do your best Brown impersonation as the music blares through the speakers.
It is always interesting to see behind the curtain and learn what a famous person’s life was like when he was not in the spotlight. This reviewer is far from a James Brown expert, so story accuracy will not be reviewed. However, the story was very interesting and shed some light on a lot of things many people may not know about the Godfather of Soul.
Director Tate Taylor committed one of the most common, and most detrimental, mistakes in the business: he tried to do too much. “Get On Up” had a jumping timeline, a broken fourth wall, talked about many things in James Brown’s life as a mere passing point without fleshing them out, and the movie just didn’t know when to wrap things up. Let’s look at those individually.
The “out of order” jumping timeline can be an interesting technique, especially with biographies. But Taylor’s was a bit of a mess. He gave us the year the first time we saw each time period, but then never reminded us of what year we were in when he jumped back to that period. He also titled these periods with random titles that did little to help us realize what point in Brown’s life we were seeing. The titles seemed as arbitrary as the decisions to jump back and forth.
“Breaking the fourth wall” is also a unique storytelling technique. This is when the character on screen actually looks at the camera and addresses the audience; the other characters on screen do not see this occurring. It worked well with the type of person James Brown was, but it was an unnecessary gimmick that added to the confusion.
Most audience members will not be James Brown historians. As such, it is very difficult to follow the story when events are mentioned almost as an aside and then the dialogue quickly moves away from that event.
A great example of that is when the film mentions the death of Brown’s son, Teddy. This had to be one of the most monumental experiences of Brown’s life, and it is mentioned maybe twice, for a few seconds.
At 135 minutes, “Get On Up” is way too long. Some films of this length go by in a flash and you are shocked that it was that long. Those films have great pace and momentum. A very dramatic, often sad and depressing, biopic usually does not move that fast. “Get On Up” did not have the pace or momentum to sustain that runtime. The film felt excruciatingly long.
The songs Taylor chose to show in their entirety were not Brown’s mega hits. Songs like “Super Bad” and “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” are more like previews, where we get maybe 20-30 seconds. Maybe this was done to highlight some lesser known, or earlier, works. It just feels like the film would have benefited from some awesome, full-length versions of Brown’s big hits, the songs everyone knows.
Finally, Boseman as James Brown was very often hard to understand. Now, to be fair, he nailed Brown’s speaking style, the man was often times, hard to understand. But, if we could only have a realistic performance or dialogue we could understand, most people would probably prefer clear dialogue. Many audience members will need to rent this film and put on the subtitles to catch every line.
The Bottom Line
“Get On Up” is just another film in the long line of “woulda, shoulda, coulda, but didn’t”. It had so much potential and it got the most important part right, the performances. But, the film got bogged down by a plethora of cinematic techniques that were disjointed and unnecessary. After well over two hours of intense, often times depressing, dramatic scenes, the movie couldn’t end soon enough. “Get On Up” is far from “super bad”, but it’s also far from super good.