Musician biopics are all the same movie: Person with troubled childhood seeks refuge in music and discovers rare talent, becoming very successful. Then, the person sows the seeds of his/her own downfall with a mixture of drugs, sex, and ego, and loses everything that once made them great. Then, there is a final begging for grace and we fade out to their greatest musical achievement. They’re great fodder for Oscars, because the actors get to mimic someone who has been seen by the entire audience before and the Academy has shown a very, very strong preference for that type of mimicry over more traditional acting. They also come with a built-in audience that wouldn’t always go to films: the musician’s fans.
Those films are often fun to watch, but not often good films. To me, Great Balls of Fire! (Jim McBride, USA 1989) has always been the quintessential musician biopic, and it’s a pretty awful film. But Jerry Lee Lewis set the blueprint for rock musicians in the latter half of the 20th century, his music is awesome, and he is the source of some of the greatest anecdotes in rock history. (Seriously, setting fire to the piano and saying, “Follow that!” because he wasn’t closing is an incredible story.)
When Get on Up was released, I assumed it was exactly that same film. I took it to be a film being made in order to get Chadwick Boseman the Oscar he nearly got for 42 (Brian Helgeland, USA 2013). However, in reality, the film is something else: it’s a disaster. It’s a mess that doesn’t even meet the standards expected of that sort of film.
One reason that same musician biopic keeps getting made is that there is such a nice, simple, understandable dramatic structure to the story. It has three clear acts that have a clear sense of cause and effect and an obvious source of dramatic power. Get on Up doesn’t really change the plot (though drugs only make a very brief appearance), but it does change up the narrative, cutting that plot up into a series of vignettes, shaking them up, and then pasting them together with no real reason. And then to help us keep straight where we are, Taylor inserts silly little vignette titles based on Brown’s self-appointed nicknames with the year next to them. It’s a heavy-handed device being used to clear up confusion that can be caused by the awful mess of the narrative.
And of course that mess of a narrative is more difficult to forgive because Taylor and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth have constructed a film with no unifying point. If there is a point to the film, it’s that James Brown was a great singer, which is really a terrible point to spend nearly 2.5 hours making. As a result, there’s nothing to focus on but that awful mess of a narrative.
However, what got this film attention was the acting, especially Chadwick Boseman. And the performances were almost universally good. Boseman didn’t really have the opportunity to show much, as he was mostly relegated to impersonating Brown’s stage persona, but he did an excellent job with what he was given. Quietly, Nelsan Ellis was excellent in a supporting role as the always-overlooked Bobby Byrd, and his part was considerably more challenging and nuanced than Boseman’s. He had to show conflicting emotions of love and respect for Brown as well as hatred for his selfish ridiculousness non-stop, and they were easy to read on his face in scene after scene. He didn’t have much else to do, but that was more than most had. Dan Aykroyd was the other standout, but not in a good way. His character is largely used as comic relief and so Aykroyd plays him as something of a Jewish music mogul stereotype, but he seems so clipped out of some sort of comic book that he’s distracting. His mugging for laughs and consistently unnatural performance may have made sense had he broken the fourth wall on occasion like Brown did, but he did not and so instead he just came across as a silly failed attempt at comic relief.
Taylor and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt created a single look for the entire film that only really deviates for a few stage scenes where the lighting becomes more dramatic simply because of the setting. They could have used visual cues to make the bizarre narrative structure easier to follow, but they didn’t, and that’s a shame. The film overall really doesn’t look any better than a typical made-for-television movie and has no strong sense of itself being anything unique or different. It shows a lack of imagination.
Overall, there just isn’t much redeeming about this film. It doesn’t look great, the plot is okay but is ruined by a bizarre narrative structure, and I’ll admit that I felt like I heard the same song for the entire running time of the film. It felt as much as anything like Taylor tried to make a few dramatic scenes and several music videos and then stitch them together rather than making anything cohesive, and some excellent performances were not enough to save it.