RIORI Presents Installment #200: Tate Taylor’s “Get On Up” (2014), pt. 2

The Film…

The Players…

Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott and Dan Ackroyd, with Craig Robinson, Viola Davis, Lennie James and Brandon Smith.

The Plot…

Like with the First Man on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong, we examine the life and times of the “Godfather Of Soul,” “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business,” “Mr Dynamite” himself, the incomparable James Brown! Yeah!

The Intro…

Yeah. So. This is my biggest, dumbest blunder here at RIORI I ever had to own up to: an unfinished post. What the heck?

No, it wasn’t outside opinion that marred Get On Up‘s shakedown. It wasn’t me being disingenuous in reviewing a movie I hadn’t seen. It wasn’t even the all too possible probability of me being too pished watching this movie and dissecting the scenes where James Brown was the guest star at the Ice Follies one year. Nope.

I destroyed my notes before I finished the installment. Due to technical difficulties updating my WordPress account, it was me being sloppy. Sorry about that. That’s all. I mean how can I tear apart a movie without the proper context? My always snide observations and remarks missing? P’shaw. My readers deserve better and effrontery belittles the Standard. For you, my faithful subs. I apologize.

From here on out I’ll write down a proper review of the movie, well, properly. I’ll cut right to the chase. If you want to check out The Rant from months back (if only to get reacquainted with my tenor responding to Get On Up) click here. Please do. It’ll make stuff all the clearer. I hope.

Again, I apologize for being sloppy and thank you for being patient. Now where were we…?

The Story…

It often follows that when a great talent comes along, hardship may have had a large influence on their muse. Either by wit or grit, cream will rise while the scum gets scorched. However, on a very rare occasion, both cream and scum complement each other. Like when bold gospel music gets messed up with down and dirty R&B and in turn gets truly, gloriously funky.

Young James Brown (Boseman) knows all about being in a funk. Poor, undereducated and borne from two parents that should’ve never tried. Still, mom and dad instilled in James to never take any bullsh*t from anyone. Especially those well-heeled white folk that would just count out James as another n*gger. Stand up and shout, kid.

James has an ear for music. Rhythm and the blues and the grand showmanship of gospel. Stumbling through his troublesome youth the only real constant James had was song. Not music, mind you. Song. The performance, the display, the beat of music. Song. It was the only thing that was steady, in heart and a determined, stubborn ego. Hard work is always hard on yourself, especially when have a pernicious desire to prove something, ipso facto a unique talent.

James was all about song, performance, the spotlight and self-promotion. He became the hardest working man in show business. Mr Dynamite, with his funk and his moves and he single-minded approach to life and show. He was self-evident, flawed, brilliant and played by his own rules. Rules that struck a chord with audiences, both literally and metaphorically. And despite all of his achievements, hit singles and iconic standing all Brown wanted was respect by any means possible.

His means were both drive complemented by failings. When such opposites meet a legend is created…

The Review…

Okay. Let me get something out of the way, straight up: Tate Taylor directs black movies for white folks. After seeing Get On Up, as well as The Help Tate’s execution has the air of paternalism towards blacks that borders on an anti-Uncle Tom. Embracing black culture and history without a real emotional investment, at least for us moviegoers.

I found The Help both overrated and odious. Skeeter’s anonymous account of black maids in her Southern town and all the travails they faced played out as if she were interviewing the domestics not as people but as test subjects. That and the solid acting came from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, yet Emma Stone, Bryce Howard and even Alison Janney held the spotlight. This is kind of storytelling would’ve gotten Faulkner into trouble with the rise of the Civil Rights movement. Paternalism, charity and tokenism mars any movie about black culture in America

Actors are not ciphers—vessels to be filled with whatever, whenever to satisfy the director’s whims (not unlike how Boseman’s James treated his band. Read on). Nor should such roles make white folks feel guilty of their privilege being taken for granted. In a word: preachy.

Tate, it’s a movie FFS. You want to mount a soapbox? Go find one. They’re hard to come by nowadays. Just direct a story.

All right. Had to speak up. Questions/comments? Watch The Help and Get On Up and then we can debate Tate’s direction and muse. I’m not trying be a gatekeeper, but I have a rather unruly James Brown collection in my library; I might know a few things about guy’s musical legacy.

Back on track, despite how I took issue with Taylor’s vision, I appreciated the execution with his twist on the tried, true and predictable linear plot progression of many, many, too many biopics. Up was non-lineal and considering Brown’s history certain “chapters” (more on that later) of his biography say more about the man than the expected rags-to-riches spectrum. This was important. Unlike, say David Bowie or Madonna, Brown never tried to reinvent himself. He was a force of nature with varying hairstyles. He just was with some telling touchstones. Like chapters, which bookended the various highlights and low points of his life and times.

Taylor’s movie was more like a memoir than a biography. Bios—like their sister autobiographies—tend to be linear. We watch and/or read how the person of interest grows up, finds their calling and the diaspora that said life dealt them, both good and ill, from cradle to approaching the grave. Most bios read this way, like Johnny Cash’s life story Cash, or almost anything David Halberstam or Ron Chernow ever put to paper. Same usually goes with biopics. Ignoring the directors’ need for creative liberties, most biopics are also linear, like Howard’s Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon, Zwick’s Glory and Boyle’s 127 Hours. These kind of cinematic journals are often satisfying despite their straight line. Or leaning back towards those unspoken creative liberties all the better for it.

Taylor opted for the left turn. Not unlike adaptaions such as Penn’s Into The Wild, Pulcini and Berman’s American Splendor and Chazelle’s First ManGet On Up likes to bounce around. A bio is linear. A journal, a memoir, a diary highlights key moments in the subject’s life, regardless of when they occurred. The first (and best) scene in Up illustrates the worst in James Brown, when his drugged up ego finally lands him in jail for a legit reason. As a kid even I saw this on the news, which may have indirectly caused my curiosity about the man.

But what about the best stuff? Four stars and a bouquet for not letting the rabbit out of the hat too soon. Namely, the next scene recounts James and the Flames under fire en route to a USO performance in Vietnam. That in turn lands in the backwoods of Georgia where young James cut his teeth on music and dealing with his dysfunctional (read: totally f*cked up) upbringings. This back and forth motion created some weird tension, like we didn’t really know where the story was headed. It both kept you on your toes as well be kept informed as to who’s show it was, and it was Brown’s show all the way. Always front and center stage.

That being said, Up was Boseman’s show all the way. Regardless how Tate’s direction was pandering and scattershot, this was Boseman’s movie. He was James Brown. From the craggy voice to the swift moves to the monumental ego to feed, the actor was all heart and soul here, pounding his performance in yo’ face. The man should’ve won some award for his portrayal. Up did get nominated for stunt work(?), however the late Boseman made a name for himself for biopics well before he adopted the mantle of T’Challa in the MCU, his swan song. No awards, save a nomination for Best Special Effects (??), but beyond the whatever Boseman was always clutch for his roles. He was never Chad the actor, he was the chosen role. Assuming the mantle. As I watched Up, I did not see Boseman. I saw Brown, and it was a magnificent performance right down to the make up and hairstyles. Dedicated he was, and his style was infectious. Too bad he didn’t sing the songs himself. Might’ve sounded pretty good. Now we’ll never know. A pity.

Offhand: Boseman never spoke out about his cancer diagnosis. Instead he made many, many stops at childrens’ hospitals for oncology in T’Challa garb much to the kids’ delight. That might have been a veiled surety of his limited time, but in the larger picture it’s about selling the goods, not reaping the rewards. Dig?

So since we probably agree the Up is a staunch character study (and ignoring most of Taylor’s soft lobbing stuff), let’s delve ever deeper into Boseman’s world of funk.

The matter of Taylor’s non-linear storytelling indeed stirred the soup. Since Brown’s story was most likely as scrambled as Taylor’s direction the final product recalls a particular ep of the old sci-fi series Fringe. Stay with me here. The plot was about a serial killer who stole his victims memories before the inevitable late night party. The B-plot was the opposite. The antagonist was a psych, and was rescued by a kind woman that comforted him, guided him, taught him not everyone was out to hurt him. Namely young Brown was saved by a patient soul who introduced him to music as salvation. Gospel. The gospel truth. It’s all a scrambled mess, but it flowed well. Talent seldom follows a straight path. So does non-linear storytelling. In any event, I found Taylor’s style the only meat on the bone with Up. The rest was eyewash. Very good eyewash mind you, but really did not flesh out the story. The end result was Up being Boseman’s tour de force performance…but that was the only meat on the bone.

Enough grousing. There were some very nice touches—flourishes—that Taylor shot, almost as if by accident. Once more I may be reading to deeply into the film, big a big story about a big entertainer demands big thinking. Or at least paying attention for some modest (but still big!) context clues. For instance, there was some matter about clothes and especially shoes that got some screen time. The brief REDACTED scene where young James stole some shoes. A lot Brown’s fancy dancing hinged on how he swivel his steps. Some more screen time dedicated to when Brown was finally earning some dough and invested in some fly, custom kicks for all to see. How the man strutted to and from his shows in the guts of the arena, those stack heels snapping. Like I said, I may have been investing too much time ignoring the filigree of the movie, but in the endgame Brown wore a lot of shoes in the metaphorical sense. Putting it another way walk a few miles in Brown’s shoes. I liked that.

Another aspect of Taylor’s direction invited a question regarding a legend: is there such a thing as a humble ego? Not fragile mind you, but one being ready to slink back into a shell when the risk of failure seems nigh approaching. Brown dealt with a lot of sh*t growing up and getting on the music scene. Something informed me in the film that Brown that the man was cagey about his job. It was always about the show, and that was fine. but what if something went wrong. It was hinted in Boseman’s uptight performance that all of it could end either on a whim or the VC blasting his plane out of the sky. It was always about the show; it was what James lived for unless he couldn’t. There was never an unless, Mr Lorax. It’s somewhat amazing how much an ego may grow against personal responsibility. Kudos to Taylor that.

There was also significant storytelling gimmick I dug in Up. Hang on. I’m trying to be positive here, which has never been my strength. I suspect you all may have tired of my incessant bile, so here’s one of few shout outs to Taylor, whom I’d like to believe he did his best. However misguided that came across.

You know about the theatrical term “breaking the fourth wall?” No? Allow me to catch you up on things. The term refers to when an actor or the entire cast addresses the audience directly as if letting them in on some secret. Boseman did this quite a bit throughout the film, but only as part of the dialogue. He was trying to convey who was really in charge of things, if only to reassure you that under his control everything will turn out fine. Just pay attention. Or else. Boseman’s panache was paired with great timing. When he spoke to us it was as if, “You follow?” Oddly reassuring since the air of the film was whatever random splat stuck. His asides made for a sharp throughput.

One more noteworthy thing about the film: great staging. It was the chapter thing, and not just the scatter of Brown’s life and times. Despite the non-linear storyline, these “chapters” as they were constructed a sturdy timeline/history of Brown’s rise to power. It almost made up for the haphazard documentation what made Brown become Brown. Don’t misunderstand me. Taylor’s style was overall pedestrian and formulaic as biopics tend to go, but a simple twist like the staging keeps your interest going. Worked for me if only in “get on with it” attitude. Maybe I felt this way since I consider myself an amateur Brown scholar. Maybe.

It’s a decent movie, albeit rather pandering, and sometime too stylized for its own good. Yes, I was just gushing a moment ago, but it was in spite of the clunkiness of the narrative. Meaning the story was cool to watch, but more often than not it felt like trying to drink a bottle of Pure Leaf iced tea while driving: fits and starts of slaking a thirst while your face and lap gets splashed. We learned that James was not his best around the opposite sex, messed around with controlled substances, an absolute tyrannical taskmaster where his sidemen were just pawns in his career and a somewhat puerile need to prove he was the best at…”everything” with precious little nuance. But ever the devil’s advocate I suggest that may have been the point. In sum the film lacked guts, played it safe and didn’t allow the other principals to breathe, let alone play. Up was rather stiff.

Yes, Bowie and Madonna were into reinvention, but never James. He was Mr Brown, and paid the cost to be the boss with unflinching determination. K claimed that you just got to got to be yourself and be good at it. Not to mention being good at being bad. It’s a classic yin and yang. You gotta embrace both with determinism and grace. That’s how I see it. I hope that Taylor tried to display that, too. I really do.

Chadwick Boseman. 1976-2018.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. I cannot stress enough how this was Boseman’s show all the way. He was fantastic as Brown. The surrounding movie? Wallpaper. Very nice wallpaper, but still just gravy. And no biscuits.

The Musings…

  • “Please, call me ‘Mr Brown’.”
  • Just goes to show don’t do DUI armed.
  • “I’m in a h*nky hoedown!”
  • K: Isn’t that the guy from Ghostbusters? I was surprised, too.
  • “I ain’t heard a thing since my radio got busted.”
  • K: It does go good with ice cream.
  • “Drums…”
  • K: Read him his fortune.
  • “Velma pregnant.” “Congrats.” K: Always double check your work. Amen.
  • Steak and eggs? Now you’ve made it.
  • “The man in front got to be The Man.”

The Next Time…

A put-upon career woman needs some Parental Guidance from her estranged mom and dad. Not advice, per se, but to be budget babysitters in a pinch.

Say it with me now: what’s the worst that could happen?

Answer: SUGAR!