Sunday, January 3, 2016

Get on Up

Year 8, Day 3 - 1/3/16 - Movie #2,203

BEFORE: This connection's easy, from hard-working comedians and (not-really) hard-working voice-over artists, to the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business", James Brown.  I started a thematic chain on musicians last year, with "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Masked and Anonymous", but I didn't get to finish it within 2015.  This year I'll follow up with this biopic, plus tomorrow's film and "Sid and Nancy", "Whiplash", "Idlewild" and so on.  I guess I have to add "Jersey Boys" to the list, if I want to touch on the Four Seasons, maybe I can pair it with that film about Brian Wilson, "Love & Mercy".  Now, where are those films about Janis Joplin that everyone was talking about making, a few years back?

Actor linking is easy, too - Fred Melamed carries over from "In a World..." to play a record executive today.

THE PLOT:  A chronicle of James Brown's rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history.

AFTER: This film illustrates the difference between "art" and "arty".  "Art" is subjective, I suppose, but mostly it describes those things that are aesthetically pleasing, things that are beautiful and seemed to come into existence organically, naturally, apparently with little effort.  "Arty" is what you get when you can't separate the product from the process that made it, when someone was trying just a bit too hard to make art, and what shines through unintentionally is the pretentiousness or B.S. of its creator.  And if someone aims for "art" and they miss, "arty" is right there to catch them. 

This is a biographical film that set out to break all the rules about biographical films - heck, why not, James Brown never followed any rules and made his own way in the world, why shouldn't a film about him do the same?  Because films aren't supposed to break rules, films are supposed to present information in a way that the audience can understand and get behind, and any breaking of the rules just ends up interfering with that process.  

First rule broken - the events of James Brown's life are not presented in order.  Sure, this is a big personal bugaboo, my OCD prefers it when things are organized, but I also feel that since James Brown went through the trouble of living his life in a particular order, perhaps he knew best and we should honor memory life by watching the scenes unfold in that same way.  Certainly it would be easier to understand, easier to keep track of who he was married to at any particular time, but instead I have to try to piece together the details of his life, try to assemble some kind of mental chart of what happened when if I want to try and understand his career arc.  Anyone who doesn't understand the narrative technique being used here is bound to have a real problem - wait, he was famous, now he's struggling again, now he's divorced, now he's back with that wife again?  

The film opens, for example, on James Brown entering his own production studio with a loaded shotgun, presumably strung out on some chemical, threatening his own employees in order to find out which one committed the sin of dropping a deuce in his private bathroom.  Really?  The man had a long, impressive career in the music industry, and THIS is where you choose to start?  I maintain that cutting up the pieces of a person's narrative and then spooling them out in near-random order is nearly an admission that the story is not strong enough to play out chronologically.

Second rule broken - the fictional James Brown seems keenly aware that he's in a biopic, often breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience, or looking at them with an "I know, right?" awareness, as if he can't believe what's taking place in his own life.  (Marvel Comics pulls this all the time with their character Deadpool, a comic-book character who's often aware that he's in a comic with an audience reading.  Within continuity, this is explained by the character being clinically insane.)  But the end result is that I was made aware that I'm watching a film, and that pulled me out of the film reality and messed with my suspension of disbelief.  I say, find another way.  

Third rule broken - and this is not the same as the first rule.  The laws of time and space are further bent by having different iterations of James Brown show up where they don't belong.  (First he's Benjamin Button, then he's Deadpool, now he's Billy Pilgrim?)  For example, when he's stopped by police after that shotgun incident, it's the adult James Brown driving the truck, but it's the child James Brown who steps out.  As if to say, at a moment of personal weakness, he was still that scared, abused boy inside.  Give me a break.  Arty, arty, arty.  

Look, I get that the juxtaposition of different images, from different times, can lead to a greater truth.  And if you want to draw a connection between, for example, James Brown in his flashy "Godfather of Soul" suit on stage and a preacher he once saw in church, moving in a similar style, I get that.  You can show him watching the preacher as a small boy, and then later when he's on stage, it will be a callback. Why couldn't the filmmaker trust the audience enough to remember what we saw before, and make the connection ourselves?  We're smart people, we'll get it, and then we'll feel smart for connecting the dots, but if the filmmaker does it for us, putting scenes from 40 years apart right next to each other, it sells the audience short, assuming we're too dumb to notice things like this on our own. 

What is impressive here, and what was most impressive about James Brown, are the concerts.  Here they had to stage not one James Brown performance, but a dozen or so, from different eras, with different musicians, different costumes and they all had to ring true - and in doing that, the movie succeeded spectacularly.  A James Brown performance from the late 1950's would be much different from one in the 1970's, and that would be much different from one in the 1990's.  I'm reminded of The Fab Four, a Beatles tribute band I saw perform in Vegas, and they did a few numbers in the black suits, a few more in the Sgt. Pepper uniforms, and then they closed the show dressed as the Beatles from the cover of the "Abbey Road" album.  If someone did the same as James Brown, a tribute concert going through all his different eras, that would be like the best parts of this film.  Assuming the actor did his own singing, that was a powerful acting job.

But, as is, with all the other stuff thrown in, it's more like a confusing mess.  All we really learn is that James Brown "paid the cost to be the boss", and didn't we already know that going in?

NITPICK POINT: What was gained by showing people who were upset that a group of black musicians were staying at their hotel, swimming in the pool, if 5 minutes later they were seen dancing to the music from band's rehearsal?  Were they racist, or not?  This seemed like a too-quick reversal, the situation thus counter-acting its own point.  If racism were so easily overcome by the enjoyment of soul music, it wouldn't even be a thing.

Also starring Chadwick Boseman (last seen in "42"), Nelsan Ellis (last seen in "The Butler"), Dan Aykroyd (last seen in "Into the Night"), Viola Davis (last seen in "Syriana"), Jill Scott, Craig Robinson (last heard in "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters"), Octavia Spencer (ditto), Lennie James, Josh Hopkins, Brandon Mychal Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Tika Sumpter, with cameos from Aloe Blacc, Nick Eversman, J.D. Evermore (last seen in "Dallas Buyers Club"), Ahna O'Reilly (last seen in "Jobs"), Allison Janney (last seen in The Way Way Back"), John Benjamin Hickey.

RATING: 4 out of 10 blindfolded kids with boxing gloves

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