Saturday, February 7, 2015

Where the hell are THEIR Oscar nominations? Chadwick Boseman in Tate Taylor's and John-Henry & Jez Butterworth's superb GET ON UP

If we must have -- and apparently, after so many decades of them, we still must -- more movie biographies of the famous, they should only be as rich, vivid and startling as GET ON UP, the movie bio-pic of famed singer/ songwriter/performer James Brown. As portrayed by Chadwick Boseman (of 42 and The Kill Hole), this perfor-mance is so incredible in terms of capturing Brown's energy and moves, his charm and nastiness, that you simply cannot imagine any other actor doing it better. Why Mr. Boseman (below and at left) was overlooked for an Oscar nomination (was it because he lip-synched?) is an embarrassing question.

A role like this may not come around for this actor (or anyone else) again, and as much as I like the work of David Oyelowo, Boseman 's Brown wipes the floor with Oyelowo's MLK. And yet, all we hear about is how the Academy snubbed Oyelowo, with nary a mention of Boseman. Is this because Martin Luther King is such a "safe" subject, while James Brown was so transgressive? Very probably. That, and the fact the Get On Up didn't set the box-office on fire, in the manner of a nitwit patriotic slough like American Sniper (Boseman's work also wipes the floor with that of  Bradley Cooper).

The other big surprise offered by this movie is the very fine, brave and sophisticated directorial work of Tate Taylor, who earlier gave us the pleasant, enjoyable but unsurprising The Help. What Mr. Taylor and his screenwriters have done is to fracture the storytelling here so that we get relatively short scenes of Brown's life and work that never linger too long. This means that many of those moments that could stand out as cliched and obvious in so many other bio-pics here move by with grace and speed, helping to tell the story without weighing it down in pablum or sentimentality. One prime example is how the film handles the demise of Brown's manager/promoter (beautifully played by Dan Aykroyd, below, left). We get a brief and sudden glimpse of a coffin and a Jewish star, then cut to another sharp, fast moment of the man's dead face in close-up on a golf course. It's all quick but quite moving -- and a lovely example of Taylor's fine and pointed work here.

Scene after scene sparkles and resonates beyond what we get from the usual biopic. If Taylor is using cliches, and of course he is because these are endemic to this genre, he manages to make them seem fresh and new via the fast-pacing, the flipping back and forth in time, and some supremely fine editing (Michael McCusker) that allows no unnecessary fat in the fire. The movie lasts a lengthy 139 minutes yet seems to fly by.

The movie's screenplay is by brothers John-Henry and Jez Butterworth, and it cracks the usual bio-pic mold wide open, allowing us to catch the kind of smart glimpses into character, time and place that combine to make a powerful whole. The movie is full of fine scenes, but the one between Brown and Little Richard (a terrific Brandon Smith) comes close to classic.

In addition to Mr. Bosman, the huge cast includes the usual excellent work from Viola Davis (above, as Brown's mom), Octavia Spencer (below, right, as the madame of the local brothel who takes him in when his parents have left), and Jill Scott (as one of his several women). Also fine is the work of Nelsan Ellis as Brown's longest friend and partner.

Normally, I would try not to over-praise a movie like this, but since Get On Up -- despite mostly favorable reviews -- never found the audience it deserved, I'm going to call it a "must." If it were an independent, rather than a big-studio movie, I'd also have added it to my last year's movies-to-see list. In any case, it is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and various streaming sources.

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