Sunday 7 December 2014

Get On Up by the Butterworths

You should race out and see the James Brown biopic Get On Up. It is certainly one of the finest films of the year, and it only falls short of being an all time classic because it is beset by what I think of as Barry Lyndon syndrome — it tells the story of an engaging hero's rise to success, and then proceeds to chart his decline and fall... In rather too much detail. 

Lingering on the negative stuff is always a danger in such stories — no one wants to whitewash the negative side of real life characters, or deny true tragedy. And this movie is a blast of sunshine compared to the recent Ian Dury biopic, which was an unremitting plateau of grimness.

But still, the length of Get On Up (138 minutes) and the emphasis on some of the bleaker aspects of its complex hero run the risk of making it ultimately a bit of downer for the audience. And we're in danger of leaving the cinema feeling depressed instead of uplifted.

This is despite the strikingly imaginative and often brilliant efforts of its screenwriting team, the brothers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworh (working from an early draft of the script by Steven Baigelman). The Butterworths also recently made a superb contribution to Edge of Tomorrow. Their hilarious, incisive script — often verging on the surreal — cannily choses key moments from James Brown's life and juxtaposes them with no regard for chronology. We also have the hero directly addressing the audience (breaking the fourth wall, we call it) like Michael Caine did in Alfie.
It's a great approach, creating a genuine work of art, and they may well be great screenwriters. They've also done their research, and not just about the music. Check out Mr Brown's hilarious critique of the US Army's strategy in Vietnam.

Homage must also be paid to the extraordinary performances by Chadwick Boseman as James Brown and Nelsan Ellis as his righthand man, Bobby Byrd. These guys deserve the best actor and best supporting actor Oscars this year, without question. Whether they'll get them is another matter, of course. Mention should also be made of Brandon Smith, who is a scream (appropriately enough) as Little Richard.

The music in the film is also, predictably, superb. Rush out and see this movie before it's gone. It's already vanishing from cinema screens like the snow in springtime, which is a tragedy.

(Image credits: Ace Show Biz.)

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