"There are no second acts in American lives," said once F. Scott Fitzgerald. In keeping with that motto, the late soul singer James Brown's life story suggests you simply have to make sure the first act keeps going at full speed. The question comes up because director Tate Taylor treats his intriguing (if underachieving) biopic of "the hardest working man in show business" as the tale of an American destiny: the son of poor black Southerners who, basically left to fend for himself, pulled himself up by the bootstraps into a consummate performer and outspoken defender of the black identity. "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud".
Get On Up, whose narrative ends a few years before the singer's death, paints Brown as a man for whom "all the world was a stage", a minutiae-obsessed control freak who strove at all times to be in command of the message but found himself wielding a lot more power than even he would have ever thought. The key line of Mr. Taylor's film, scripted by playwright Jez Butterworth and his brother John-Henry (a regular collaborator), comes at the end: "I paid the cost to be the boss". It's lonely at the top, and in that assumption of both unavoidable loneliness and steely ambition, of "having what it takes", mirrored by its rags-to-riches story arc, Brown is presented as a true American original.
That is only underlined by the fact that the music is not so much the heart of the film as a means to an end: Brown could have been an actor, an athlete, an engineer, an executive, it just happens music was his line of work. Mr. Taylor and the Butterworth brothers prefer to focus on the push-and-pull of success and integrity, friendship and business, placed against a context where Brown was starting from a losing position - a black artist from poor beginnings, starting his career in the still segregated America of the 1950s. The period context is always present but never pushed forward, working in the background to make understandable what's going on, much helped by master DP Stephen Goldblatt's honeyed images and Mark Ricker's production design.
Out of this comes the true centre of the film, the lifelong friendship between Brown and Bobby Byrd. Nelsan Ellis is excellent as the gospel singer from a middle-class black family that offers him a shot at making music and ends up both a witness and a victim of the singer's talent and ruthlessness.
Even though the music isn't necessarily the key to the story, it's still shot with much more care and sensibility than you would expect, with Mr. Taylor's clean, spare handling and Chadwick Boseman's earnest, committed performance as Brown being on the whole extremely well judged. But Get On Up is much more interesting than just that: the Butterworths' script eschews a chronological narrative in favour of a free-flowing back-and-forth between eras in the singer's life, juxtaposed in a sort of "stream-of-consciousness" sequence that sees Mr. Boseman often address the audience directly.
To everyone's credit, this doesn't come off as either artificial or pretentious, but actually works within the context of an aged star remembering what made his life so special. And that's also the reason why it's a shame that Get On Up seems, at times, too in awe of James Brown's achievements to actually point out the depths he could sink to. In fairness, the film does present him as a cold-hearted, abusive bastard, but it does so mostly within the professional realm and, at almost two and a half hours of screen time, it still treads lightly on his family life and on the multiple accusations of spousal abuse.
But this is a celebration of a singular talent, rather than a full-on, no-holds-barred biopic, backed by a major Hollywood studio, so there's clearly a strong need for Get On Up to somehow fit the great tradition of musical biopics. Seen in that light, it's really quite impressive that Tate Taylor made something that doesn't merely parrot the "official line" but actually tries to engage the circumstances and the events that surrounded a life in music. Even if it doesn't go all the way, it's a better attempt than most.
GET ON UP
USA, Japan 2014
Cast Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer
Director Tate Taylor; screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth; based on a story by Steven Baigelman, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth; cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt (colour); composer Thomas Newman; designer Mark Ricker; costumes Sharen Davis; editor Michael McCusker; producers Brian Grazer, Mick Jagger, Victoria Pearman, Erica Huggins and Mr. Taylor; production companies Universal Pictures, Imagine Entertainment and Jagged Films in association with Wyolah Films and Dentsu/Fuji Television Network
Screened November 10th 2014, @Cinema, Lisbon (distributor advance press screening)