Review: Get On Up (2014)

This movie was the moment I stopped seeing the point in biopics.

At a certain point, I find myself watching the impersonation and not the movie – and when that overshadows or distracts from what may be a remarkable real-life story, I’d prefer to just see the story in documentary form (see: Michael Mann and Will Smith’s Ali versus When We Were Kings). It’s a tricky balance: it requires some pretty deft film-making, from the script to the visuals to the pacing and structure. Should the film attempt to summarise an entire life, at the risk of feeling rushed or lacking gravity? Should it focus on one period or episode from a life, relying on either (or both) its inherent interest factor and/or the audience’s prerequisite knowledge of the subject to add stakes to the drama unfolding onscreen? How do you adapt real-life drama without it looking like generic movie melodrama? How do you present a personality who is larger-than-life in reality without them seeming like a Hollywood charicature in a Hollywood film?

It’s difficult not to compare Get On Up to Ray (and not just because each is a biopic about a legendary African-American musician and performer, whose mid-20th-century emergence and impact on popular music made waves that are still felt in mainstream American culture today, but… yeah, sure). But after Ray, which is better-structured and feels more rounded, even the super-talented Chadwick Boseman‘s performance doesn’t save Get On Up from seeming disjointed and underwhelming (and this was two-for-two for Mr Boseman, what with his previous film role as Jackie Robinson in 42).

There are genuinely interesting bits (such as the scene where Brown explains to his players that all their instruments are drums) which are more compelling than the more melodramatic bits (the hostage scene / framing device) because the former are unique to this story, while the latter seem more fiction than strange.