EIGHT years after his death, James Brown is once again the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, with three biographies, an admiring documentary by Alex Gibney, and now a biopic about the Godfather of Soul’s journey from segregation to success.
Get On Up (12A)
Director: Tate Taylor
Running time: 139 minutes
“Don’t tell me when, where or how I can be funky,” rasps Brown. A rare sexual avatar when he first started out, he said it loud: he’s black and he’s proud. So how do you condense someone so powerfully wild into a 12A certificate movie? By reducing him to a sanitised caricature of a musician, with milestones strung out like greatest hits.
Instead of a chronology, the script for Get On Up, by Steven Baigelman, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, roams back and forth through Brown’s timeline in the manner of ferrets with ADHD. Present is Brown’s dirt-poor upbringing, abandoned at a young age by first his mother (Viola Davies), then his father (Lennie James), and finally raised by an aunt (Octavia Spencer) in a whorehouse, with the sense that you can never really trust anyone. From the age of 20 to the age of 60, Brown is played by the longer, leaner, lighter Chadwick Boseman, who nevertheless captures the Brown speaking rasp and recreates the spins, splits, and sweat of his propulsive gigs, at one point extolling the funk from inside an alarming gold leotard.
Most of the film’s best moments are arranged around a Brown performance, such as the night he upstages The Rolling Stones, or his slo-mo realisation that doing I Got You (I Feel Good) in the film Ski Party is a token turn in a whitebread entertainment. “Oh hell no,” he groans. “I’m in a honky hoedown”.
Wisely, Boseman leaves the singing to Brown’s original recordings, but weirdly the film doesn’t show much interest in how Brown came to write songs like Get Up Offa That Thing or Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, despite the fact they still resonate with musicians today. The nearest we get is a record label suit complaining about the lack of variety in Please, Please, Please, until he’s told, “it’s not about the lyrics”.
In a film full of fancy stage footwork, Get On Up spends a lot of energy sidestepping and excusing Brown’s worst behaviour. His business fiddles are presented as signs of a sharp mind, soft-pedalling the way he denied his band basic pay levels. His womanising is given an indulgent “boys, eh?” slant, while Brown’s drug-taking and wife-beating get one scene each.
This isn’t about imposing morality on audiences: it’s ignoring the truth of Brown’s life and its complexity. The night he faced down an audience on the brink of rioting just after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination deserves its place here, but it is negligent to omit other political acts, such as his endorsements of Nixon and Reagan, which cost Brown legions of fans.
Get On Up is directed by Tate Taylor, whose last film was The Help, a soft-focus civil rights drama which literally served up baked poop. Scatology gets its moment here too in a scene where Brown fires a gun in a roomful of insurance salesman, because one of them has used his private bathroom. It sounds terrifyingly dangerous – but of course, Get On Up treats the event as if it was merely endearingly loony.
On general release from Friday
The Homesman (15)
Directed, co-written and produced by and also starring Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman offers us all manner of curiosities; a chatty 1850s town philosopher called Buster Shaver, a raft of frontier men embracing the facial hair of Warner Bros’ Yosemite Sam, and a storyline that tries to nail True Grit to The Snake Pit. However, I may remember this chiefly as the movie where a woman under 40 has to beg to have sex with Tommy Lee Jones, in a film directed by Tommy Lee Jones.
Hilary Swank is the woman in question, a Nebraskan pioneer who runs a farm but can’t get a husband because she’s “plain as an old tin pail, and bossy”. Swank (above, with Jones) spends a lot of time brooding on this, which is especially dismaying when you realise this film is unsubtly positioning this sad, man-starved character as the embodiment of American Womanhood.
Three other actresses – Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter – do little except stare blankly as Swank carts them to Missouri after losing their wits to deprivation, death and abusive marriages – a point Swank’s character might ponder, but doesn’t, in a film which is supposedly about women, but isn’t. Once Jones’ army deserter joins the trip, it’s clear who is the focus and who is merely expected to provide background glumness. The Homesman is a new genre: phoney proto-feminist western.
On selected release from Friday
No Good Deed (15)
One rain-lashed night, a stranger (Idris Elba) arrives on the doorstep of a busy mother (Taraji P Henson) and talks his way into her home. Since Sam Miller’s film reveals from the start that she’s giving out coffee and cake to a serial killer, there’s no good reason to bother with this punishing by-the-numbers thriller.
Cineworld, Edinburgh and Glasgow
Third Person (15)
In Paris, Liam Neeson is a novelist trying to finish his latest book but haunted by his son’s death and distracted by his younger lover (Olivia Wilde). In Rome, Adrien Brody is stealing original Italian fashion designs. In New York, a soap star (Mila Kunis) is involved in a custody battle with her ex (James Franco). And in the audience, you may be wishing you’d chosen something less pompous than this dreary pile-up of vignettes.
What We Do In The Shadows (15)
Flight Of The Conchords’ Jemaine Clement co-directs, co-writes and co-stars with New Zealand comic Taika Waititi in this mock-doc about flat-sharing vampires who lead a semi-studenty life of late-rises, trying to primp for a night out despite being unable to use mirrors, and house meetings about who does the dishes. A toothless, one-note joke, this just about sustains its 80-minute running time.
On general release
My Old Lady (12A)
Kevin Kline is delighted to inherit a large house in Paris, but less delighted to discover that he can only sell the property once his tenant (Maggie Smith) has popped her clogs. Israel Horovitz’s first film sounds like a comedy, but alas it’s the springboard for an overwrought drama about death, infidelity and rotten childhoods. Astonishingly, a subplot concerning incest is treated as one of the film’s breezier moments.
On general release