Another week, another musical biopic: hot on the Cuban heels of the Hendrix biopic comes James Brown, the trouser-splitting Godfather of Soul. Hollywood seems to love the genre. Stars thus immortalised include Elvis, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Tina Turner, Liberace, Ian Curtis, Sid Vicious, the Jersey Boys, Bob Dylan, Notorious B.I.G., Charlie “Bird” Parker, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. Projects in development include Janis Joplin (already played in fictionalised form by Bette Midler in The Rose), Elvis again (by Baz Luhrmann), Kurt Cobain and Freddie Mercury (with Sasha Baron Cohen no longer attached).
Why so? They arrive with existing “brand equity”, ie a previously recognisable name, saving a fortune in marketing. Stars love them: it’s a chance not just to slip into someone else’s skin, but show off their singing and dancing, too. Joaquin Phoenix (Johnny Cash) and Angela Bassett (Tina Turner) were both Oscar-nom’d; Jamie Foxx won as Ray Charles. And these biopics all come with a ready-made arc, the same one as in sporting movies such as Rocky or Raging Bull: youngster triumphs over adversity to find success; throws it away again, along with their friends, through the pressures of fame and the ravages of drug abuse; and eventually (though occasionally real life conspires against this ending) finds redemption.
But that’s also the great problem with them: they are familiar and predictable; the ending is known. So kudos to Get On Up, the James Brown biopic that opens in the UK tomorrow, for at least attempting something different.
As scripted by the brothers Butterworth, Jez and John-Henry, the time periods leap all over the place: Brown’s dirt-poor upbringing with parents who both abandoned him; his time in jail; his trip to play to the troops in ‘Nam; the rampant narcissism that alienates his band; his troubles with the tax man. We slip back and forth more bewilderingly than Mathew McConaughey inside a black hole, with only ever-changing hairstyles to guide us.
Though I applaud the ambition, I can’t say it’s totally successful. The lack of a clear narrative arc, together with Brown’s habit of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, are disengaging. It would take an auteurial vision on the part of the director stronger than Tate Taylor can manage – a Nic Roeg, say – to pull this time-shifting off. The whole thing feels rather stagey, not surprisingly given the Butterworths’ origins as playwrights. The lighting and cinematography are more TV than movie, and there are a few too many lines that play to the gallery: “Don’t tell me when, where or for how long I can be funky”, he tells an officer in ‘Nam who tries to cut his show short; and when his plane gets shot at, “Do you want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?”
Get On Up is always watchable and occasionally thrilling, however, both for the music and the extraordinary central performance by relative unknown Chadwick Boseman. He sings, he dances, he does the splits; at one stage during production he had to play a teenaged Brown in jail in the morning, and switch to Brown in his sixties on the same afternoon. He kept in character throughout the shoot. To me, Boseman never quite goes beyond impersonation and into inhabitation of the character – Dan Ackroyd as his kindly manager gives more of a sense of an inner life behind the eyes – but it is an astonishing tour de force. He’s destined for blockbuster fame as the Black Panther in Marvel’s superhero flick, slated for November 2017.