Is there such a thing as state-of-the-art lip-syncing? Because I’ve never seen anything like what Chadwick Boseman does as James Brown in Get on Up. By the time the movie gets to Brown’s aerobic 1971 Paris show — which he does here in a onesie whose top is just a vest — you’re no longer watching an actor mouth “Soul Power.” You’re watching the words torpedo from his mouth. It’s an electric magic trick: a soaking-wet performer understanding that the key to the illusion, to transcending mere impersonation, is wedding Brown’s passion to precision. If something goes just a hair wrong, the arrow misses the apple and lands in somebody’s head.
Boseman speaks in a version of Brown’s charred country husk, risking intelligibility for accuracy. There were moments when I only kind of caught what he said. While Brown could belt, he could also mumble. But the singing’s a different story. That voice was a weapon of art. Who’d be dumb enough to try to imitate it?
For the first song or two, you’re skeptical of the fake-it approach. But then Boseman’s Brown takes the stage at a Georgia juke joint in the mid-1950s, and it’s clear that whatever he’s doing with this performance has started to work. Little Richard (Brandon Smith, who’s very good) exits — or rather, given the bitchy oracle he is here, goes poof! Then Brown and his bandmates sneak on after him and do the old jump-blues classic “Caldonia.” The camera gets right up in Boseman’s face so you can take it all in: the sweat and the straining and the shuffling around a tiny stage. The sex, basically. Boseman probably overdoes the unself-consciously ugly expressions Brown made when he performed, but that’s what pulls you through the looking glass: It hurts to be this good.
For this performance to work, you have to believe that the man strutting around and doing the kicks and splits and falling down on one knee is the same cat whose interjections are exploding off the screen amid the music. You have to see strain in his face and lips and muscles. The timing of the syncing and the illusion of live singing have to combine to feel real. You have to be able to look into Boseman’s face and feel, as you could with James Brown, that what you’re seeing and hearing is glorious and obscene and original: the radical, ripping rasp of a voice.
Brown didn’t jive or play black for a white audience. That was the shock of his talent: Unlike Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, he never adulterated it. The voice was one-size-fits-all. He had a raw, irreducible wail whose volume and vibrato he could control. What was ironically exhilarating about him, of course, was that he rehearsed obsessively in order to master seeming like a preacher on fire. He was also multiorgasmic. Brown was always. About. To. Come. He’d bend down on one knee and receive the cape from his forever sideman, Bobby Byrd, seeming spent, only to whip around, ready to go again. All night. Whether the songs lasted two minutes or 10, they, too, were all ready to go all night.
Get on Up lasts 138 minutes, and as good as Boseman and a dozen other actors are, I don’t think I could have lasted a minute more. Brown was an exhausting entertainer. This is exhaustive entertainment. The clichés wear you out — recording sessions, hit songs, women, babies, childhood flashbacks, highs, lows, hair (so much fried hair), arguments, makeups, somebody saying “I can’t do this anymore.” So does the fact that the filmmakers don’t know what to make of Brown’s contradictions — his conservatism and progressiveness, his abstemiousness and indulgence, his appreciation for and abuse of women, his drill-sergeant bandleadership and his soldier-on-furlough ways. There’s too much jumping across time, too much of Brown speaking right into the camera. Why on earth sit through a fictional film of his life — especially one as fictional as this — when there are at least half a dozen documentaries that can give you exactly what you need?
The screenwriters are the English brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (and Mick Jagger is the producer). If you didn’t know these two also wrote Edge of Tomorrow, you could tell by the slippery approach to time and the small-but-unstoppable larger-than-life protagonist. The first batch of scenes in Get on Up move explosively around the decades, from Brown prowling the bowels of the Omni Coliseum in the mid-1990s; to that time in 1988 when he took a shotgun to a strip mall; to him and the J.B.’s under Vietcong fire in a U.S. plane in 1968; to him looking into the camera and asking us, “You ready?” after which comes a fireball that whisks us to 1939 and the one-room shack that once was his home. The movie wants to offer Brown as a self-made force of nature who made his own weather. He started as a nothing who quit school in seventh grade and became an impervious industry. “I can never quit when it gets hard,” he says at some point. “I goes forward … I live.”
All this leaping across time begins, more or less, with that shotgun incident. It’s not an auspicious raising of the curtain. Brown pulls up to his office in Augusta, disoriented — officially, he was high on PCP. He deduces that someone attending the insurance seminar in the adjoining office has used his personal bathroom, the one with a gold record on the wall. Greatly upset, he interrupts the session, terrifies the attendees, blasts a hole in the ceiling, and zeroes in on the mortified culprit. He talks gibberish. It’s a crude introduction that should make fans of half-baked black-male characters feel right at home. Yeah, we very much know this is James Brown. But the movie is content to present him as a crazy old Negro with a shotgun.
This is hardly an unconventional approach to movie biography. Close your eyes and it could be Why Do Fools Fall in Love or Ray: the presentation of contradictions, of a star’s brilliance and decline. But Get on Up’s digressions can be compelling. When Brown loses the thread of his rant at that seminar, it’s because hallucinations of his own screaming and rhythm section cloud over him. This won’t be the last daydream he has. But Get on Up isn’t a movie about structural fantastical narrative. It’s not about how James Brown wound up stoned and armed in a tracksuit or the ensuing car chase and subsequent arrests. The scenes are cuts on a greatest-hits collection. Remember the time when JB flew his Learjet to meet President Johnson? What about the legendary Boston Garden show Brown put on the night after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination?
After almost two hours, the film implies that the spur for the insurance-seminar incident is grief over his son Teddy, who died 15 years earlier. This bit isn’t unobjectionable. It more or less happened. It’s just misguided. The Butterworths and the movie’s director, Tate Taylor, are up to something interesting. They’re trying to represent Brown’s psyche. They put the movie in his voice and imagine the story from his point of view. When he’s pantomiming “I Feel Good,” with his Famous Flames on the all-white studio set of 1965’s Frankie Avalon–Dwayne Hickman vehicle Ski Party, the track starts to warp. He surveys the white faces and the snowflake cardigan he’s got on and fantasizes about being half-dressed and sweaty onstage draped in black women. But the self-consciousness goes too far. We see him smack his second wife, DeeDee Jenkins (Jill Scott), across the kitchen. Well, the slap occurs offscreen. We see her crash into a table as he walks toward the camera and glowers at us. Is this a movie about House of Cards’ Frank Underwood or the Godfather of Soul?
The emotional hook is the friendship between Brown and Byrd, who’s played with easy, memorable warmth by Nelsan Ellis. The movie even cooks up a scenario in which Byrd’s gospel group (the Starlighters) comes to the prison where a teenage Brown is serving five-to-13 for petty theft and the two men fall in musical love. Byrd tried to remain devoted to Brown after the players in the J.B.’s demanded payment and time off and Brown fired them — bye, Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson); bye, Pee Wee Ellis (Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter). Brown was the Proud Mary of self-made music icons: He never did anything nice and easy.
Taylor sends a lot of movie at you. There’s a flashback that feels lifted from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. There’s a very funny cut into the audience at a live show, where, in one shot, Scott is mildly turned on, and in the next she’s fully, wildly aroused and drenched in sweat. Often Taylor is throwing at us the cast of his previous film, The Help. Viola Davis plays Brown’s abandoning mother. Octavia Spencer is the aunt who puts Little Junior, as he’s called, to work routing men to her brothel. Allison Janney, Aunjanue Ellis, and Ahna O’Reilly are also here, Janney for one of the dumbest cutaways in the movie.
The Help was a moral mess: Black women need white women to help lift them up. Get on Up would seem to be a corrective: If a white hand tries to help Brown, he smacks it. The movie is sure to point out that he knew the racial score, that powerful whites would exploit blacks when they could and that black people had to have the dignity, ambition, and belief to empower themselves. Brown was serious about that, and the movie almost gives that seriousness its due. After some of the black crowd rushes the stage at that Garden show, Brown turns ruminatively cross, wondering aloud what’s going on. “Either we together or we ain’t.”
He was in a sociopolitical bind, between black radicals who thought he was just a capitalist and whites who suspected he had the power to start riots. On his way to meet Johnson, he tells his manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), “I’m just a soul brother whining on his private jet.” You laugh at the line, and then, not much later, there he is in a recording studio wearing an Afro and dashiki surrounded by children who belt, “Say it loud — ‘I’m black and I’m proud!’” This movie is the opposite of The Help. Brown wanted African Americans lifting themselves up. He was an elevator.
For a few years, biographical moviemaking had been taking a single angle on a subject, or it applied parameters. The scripts of Peter Morgan — The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Damned United, Rush — were character studies set against specific moments in history. Lincoln was about a president and the agonizing ecstasy of the legislative process. Walk the Line reconsidered Johnny Cash’s life as a romantic drama with his wife, June. These movies are windows onto icons. There are too many windows in Get on Up. It quite easily could have been a movie about that night at the Garden, about a real test of a man’s character, of a city’s, and, by extension, a nation’s.
There are too many Browns for any one film to get a proper handle on who he was. The results here are both psychologically keen and presumptuous (mostly with regard to his mother and his sexuality), but fragmentary, too. The story is of a man so full of himself — and so full of selves — that he was practically a nesting doll. That, of course, leaves the filmmakers to rely on Boseman for coherence. His challenge is to keep you from thinking about Eddie Murphy’s hot tub impersonation, from sensing only an outsize joke. He has to find a way to take you past caricature and into characterization. This movie gives Boseman a much clearer shot at that than did last year’s Jackie Robinson movie 42, which was more about the courageous effrontery of Branch Rickey than it was about Robinson and Wendell Smith, the black journalist who was effectively Robinson’s minder.
Boseman has a wide, serious-looking face. The hair and makeup artists here try not to overdo it. When Davis drops by Brown’s dressing room, her droopy face rhymes with his. Boseman is pliably handsome enough that he can keep playing the great Negroes of the last 100 years — James Baldwin should be next. But he has given Robinson and now Brown enough different charisma for him not to be just a paper doll. With Robinson, he played stoicism. With Brown, he’s playing everything else. There’s a long rehearsal sequence for “Cold Sweat” in which Brown’s manic, punitive genius surfaces, and another scene after the band quits in which his paranoid self-aggrandizement takes over. But Boseman is most alive when it seems that Brown’s singing voice is his own. It never seems more so than when he stands stock-still in an arena and does “Try Me.” It’s a lie, of course. But such is Brown’s everlasting artistry and Boseman’s interpretation of it that you’re momentarily certain it’s true.
’Tis the season for monosyllabic trees. They shoot, drive, grunt, and play guys named Dom Toretto and Richard Riddick. Rarely, though, are they actual trees. Guardians of the Galaxy dares to toss into the ensemble a stalk of braided twigs and limbs. His name is Groot, he’s got eyes that take on more water than a leaky boat, and his voice, boldly enough, belongs to that summer sequoia Vin Diesel, who speaks his one line (“I am Groot”) about 10 different ways. The character himself comes from a computer. As for the actor: Wood has never sounded more elastic. That’s merely one of half a dozen miracles the movie has to offer. It hails from the Marvel comic-book universe, but it may as well have wafted from a genie’s lamp.
Like so many other movies with spaceships and dark lords and cute, white, cosmically charmed heroes, this, too, is a space opera. Loosely, the plot forces mercenaries to band together to stop an orb from falling into the sort of wrong hands that will twist it open and obliterate the universe. But it’s conducted with the sort of high spirits that usually evaporate in so-called superhero movies. The director doesn’t come from Hollywood action or big-time television. James Gunn comes from the most entertaining Avenger of all: the Toxic one. He did time at the counter-artistic schlock house Troma Entertainment and brings to this new movie that studio’s exciting load of crap: a planet that’s just a giant floating head; a badass raccoon who brings down the house with Bradley Cooper’s American Hustle accent and whose sidekick is that tree; Benicio Del Toro as a mad scientist who looks like Bea Arthur and Jim Jarmusch serving a life sentence as Ricardo Montalbán in The Wrath of Khan.
So absent are the ponderousness and world-stabilizing dreariness of so many comic-book movies that for long stretches, Guardians plays like a parody of the genre. But in banishing self-seriousness, it harbors a reverence for the joys of fantasy. The cute white guy is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a strapping nimrod orphan who, as a boy, was sucked up into outer space, and now, as a thirtysomething man, is a junker trolling the galaxy for treasure — one of the Goonies grown up with delusions of Han Solo. (To the bafflement of many, Quill wants to be called Star-Lord.) He’s after the orb. So are Rocket and Groot. But so is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned assassin who’s been sent for the treasure, but chose instead to defect from her family’s evil galactic dynasty.
When these four square off for possession of the ball in a multilevel public space, the camerawork and choreography have a jaw-dropping elegance. Each participant winds up with the orb only to be stripped of it: It’s like watching a Looney Tunes pinball ballet. Technology has evolved so that everything seems possible, and a sequence like this stands out because it’s simultaneously nothing special and extraordinary at the same time. The trick for the audience is succumbing to the trickery. Over and over in this movie, you do. At some point, one of the digital characters pops his eyes and throws his hands over his mouth in appalled shock, and without realizing it, so did I: Who thought to add such a hilariously human grace note?
That chase for the orb lands those four in prison, where Drax (professional wrestler Dave Bautista), a bald colossus with scarlet embossing on his skin, gets a load of Gamora and, rather than finding her hot, wants to kill her. She’s a member of the race that murdered his wife and daughter. Some good writing by Gunn and Nicole Perlman keeps the five of them bickering until their only moral option is to become a team and stop the dastardly Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) from getting the orb and destroying the planet Xandar.
The 1970s hits on Peter’s mixtape provide the movie with its soundtrack, and half of them I could have lived without. Gunn is too original to ape Quentin Tarantino. (Of course, the last couple of songs promise that Volume 2 of the collection might be something to hear.) People’s reactions to this music were giddy the day I saw the film. Maybe the songs in a movie context were new to them, and even I have to confess to finding the triumphal heroes-walking-in-slo-mo-down-the-hall a hoot. These guys stroll as “Cherry Bomb” plays, which is less amusing than the sight of a digital raccoon adjusting his crotch and Saldana not bothering to stifle a yawn. In the bad version of this movie, that’s film criticism. Here’s, it’s jackassery.
I do wish there had been a way to give Djimon Hounsou more to play than another Caliban part, but there’s his character, glued to Ronan’s side. Still, I love the way the starships swing into park. I love that there’s a place called Xandar and that it’s overseen by something called the Nova Empire and that the president, Nova Prime, is played by Glenn Close as her First Lady from Mars Attacks! I love the way Pace really enunciates his lines, as though every syllable has the power to murder a teddy bear. And Bautista’s soulful, humorous humorlessness might be the happiest surprise of all. I’ve seen him “act” on TV’s Raw and have wanted to call “timber.” But here he’s something like a brute-comedian.
The script won’t get the credit it deserves for its humor and economy. But the movie’s terms are navigable for an adult, and if you’re 9 or 10 and confounded, I’m guessing there’s a thrill in the confusion: I will figure this out! The trouble with what George Lucas has done to the movies is that so many writers and directors and companies have learned the wrong lessons. They’re building myths and monuments and worlds. But they’re not having any fun. Guardians is the first movie since Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs to understand that the Star Wars movies were also comedies. Gunn is a lot more playful than Lucas, and he’s not a priceless cynic like Brooks. This is the sort of the movie that men like Zack Snyder want to make but lack the gravity-free touch to put together. Gunn appears to remember the high of certain kinds of moviegoing, where when the credits are over, all you want to do is get back in line and enjoy the whole thing again. He’s made that kind of adventure, one of the few that inspire you to do as its studio commands: Marvel.