Thursday, August 28, 2014
Get On Up: A Better Music Biopic Than Ray and Walk the Line
Get On Up, the James Brown biopic in theaters now, begins in a way that really surprised me. It starts off with two scenes that take place out of chronology and out of context. The first is in the 1980's, and involves an older, pudgier James Brown terrorizing people with a shotgun because someone used his bathroom. The second takes place at the height of the Vietnam war, when Brown goes overseas to play for the troops and a military officer tries to tell him his set can only go for 25 minutes. Brown does not handle it well. Neither of these scenes end up mattering much to the narrative of the film, and neither is returned to in the ensuing two plus hours. So why start the movie like this? Well, to be frank, James Brown was kind of an asshole, kind of crazy, and a legendary egomaniac that constantly referred to himself in the third person. One of the things that makes Get On Up so great is that it wastes no time showing us this side of Brown, before it even bothers to show us a side of him that we'll like. It's an effort to start things out on an even playing field. The movie knows it's about to spend over two hours making Brown look good and important, and it knows the audience knows that as well. And Brown WAS good and important, of that there is no doubt. But James Brown was also a shit in a lot of ways, and the movie wants you to know that it knows that, so it begins by telling you. It was a good move.
When Ray came out in 2004, it launched the current era of the music biopic, of which it, Walk the Line, and now Get On Up are the three most notable. Ray and Walk the Line were huge hits, and Get On up hasn't garnered nearly as much attention. Ray and Walk the Line starred movie stars that won Oscars for their roles, and Get On Up is unlikely to follow that. All three films are about legendary figures within the history of 20th century pop music, and it's a no-win game to try and argue which is the most important. But Get On Up does the best job of explaining why it's subject is important and also does the best job of making the audience feel it.
As James Brown, Chadwick Boseman is a revelation. He played Jackie Robinson in the biopic 42 last year, and was good in that, but the lingering memory of that film is that it was a Jackie Robinson movie in which Robinson wasn't given much to do. The movie almost used him as a prop, so Boseman didn't have the chance to show what he could do. Here he does, and does he ever. Jamie Foxx and Joaquin Phoenix were incredibly lauded for their performances as Ray Charles and Johnny Cash for two things that didn't totally matter in retrospect. With Foxx, it was all about the physical transformation. You actually lost the realization that you weren't watching Ray Charles. And with Phoenix, the big deal is that he did his own singing. "Sure," the film was saying, "Jamie Foxx may have LOOKED like Ray Charles, but Joaquin Phoenix actually SOUNDS like Johnny Cash!" Right, but… who cares? Was Walk the Line a better film because Phoenix sang his own songs? No, actually it wasn't. It ended up being a Johnny Cash movie without ever hearing Johnny Cash's voice, which was kind of a major oversight.
But the real problem with Walk the Line wasn't that it didn't feature Cash's voice, it's that it wasn't about Cash at all. Walk the Line was a love story in which the man just happened to be a star musician/drug addict. It wasn't a movie about why Johnny Cash was important to music, but rather about why June Carter was important to Johnny Cash. And Ray wasn't really about anything except a talented person overcoming blindness and heroin to continue harnessing his talent. Neither film answered the fundamental question of "Why are we making a movie about this person?" (Well, unless the answer to that question is that someone important in Hollywood thought it could make money.)
Get On Up does, in spades. My boss is a huge James Brown fan, and a few days before Get On Up hit theaters I asked him if he was excited for it. "I don't know," he said. "Once I saw it was PG-13, I was kind of out. James Brown did not live a PG-13 life." That's true, he didn't. But it doesn't require the full power of an "R" rating to portray why Brown was a dick. Pg-13 can still get you there. Yes, it's glossed over in parts. The film only shows Brown hitting his wife once, and cheating on her once. We only see him disrespect his band a few times. But really, how much of that stuff do you need to see to get the message that it was habitual? Get On Up gives you every side of Brown, it just doesn't give them all equal share. And that's okay, because it DOES answer the question of why someone made a movie about James Brown. It is impossible to walk away from this film without understanding how and why James Brown changed music forever. It does that in several ways. First of all, the music largely speaks for itself. All of Brown's best songs are here, and the movie doesn't try anything foolish like having someone else sing them. Boseman may be lip-syncing, but good god almighty does he have James Brown's moves. Brown was arguably the greatest showman in pop music history, and Boseman gives it to us. His music broke barriers in every sort of way, from energy, to tempo, to color barriers, to social relevance. We see his music making white people dance, and we see it bringing comfort to the black community on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Much of the film focuses on Brown's long friendship and working relationship with Bobby Byrd, who first helped Brown get started and spent decades as his band leader. There's a great moment in the film, after the two are no longer partners and it's become clear that Byrd is Brown's subordinate, where someone asks Byrd how he deals with it. "One day you just realize that you're not the one meant to be on the front of that stage," Byrd says. Bobby Byrd knew that he was both blessed and cursed to be working with one of the most naturally gifted people to ever record music. It was a constant reminder of what abilities he didn't have himself, but also a constant reminder that few people are ever lucky enough to watch someone that good, day in and day out. I re-watched the great Mozart film, Amadeus, a month or so ago, and the relationship between Mozart and Salieri in that film is sort of the opposite of Brown and Byrd. Amadeus is all about how Salieri simply can't deal with the existence of someone like Mozart, who just naturally has more talent than everyone else. Bobby Byrd could deal with James Brown because he knew he was lucky to deal with him.
What Bobby Byrd realized, that James Brown was the one meant to be at the front of that stage, is what Get On Up spends two hours showing us. One of Brown's many nicknames was Mr. Dynamite, and Get On Up doesn't merely tell us that, but shows us why. We hear how great Brown's music is, but we also see how powerfully he delivered it to the people. Both aspects are crucial to understanding Brown. And yet, Get On Up still has the audacity to leave us with parts of Brown that we don't understand. The director, Tate Taylor, who played it so safe with The Help, actually treads murky waters here. The film ends on notes that suggest Brown didn't even really understand himself. Ultimately, that's a key element of what makes a great biopic--complexity. We need to see people fail to fully appreciate when they succeed. Get On Up gives us so much of Brown's failings, such that the movie is really bookended with him at his worst. The movie gives us that bitter taste at both the beginning and the end because it knows we can take it. And the reason the movie knows we can take the worst of James Brown is because it so effectively shows us why the best of James Brown was worth it.