Originally published 3/31/14
Ed Note: I have still not seen Get On Up. I hear Chadwick Boseman did a great job.
Sorry for the delay between posts – the last two weeks have been particularly hectic. After almost seven years, I left my job for a promising new gig at Yale as a representative of the University’s Equal Opportunity Office, where I’ll help further their mission to develop and maintain a diverse workforce and investigate claims of harassment/discrimination. I’ve had about four weeks to wrap up everything related to my job while preparing for a whole new adventure. It’s been pretty amazing and frightening. In other news, I’ve met my fundraising goal for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Run for the Wild 5k at the Bronx Zoo (in support of their 96 Elephants initiative). Much thanks to all the friends and family who donated (particularly my brother, who put me over the top)! There’s still time to register and support!
I’ve read some interesting comics (Afterlife with Archie, the Crew, the Dark Horse Catalyst book), but haven’t had the time to write anything about them. So, in the meantime, here’s a brief rant about an annoying film trailer.
This is the trailer for Get On Up, a James Brown biopic slated for release in the summer of 2014. Get On Up is directed by Tate Taylor and features Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Craig Robinson, Nelsan Ellis (of True Blood fame) and Jill Scott, with Chadwick Boseman as James Brown. It’s an impressive cast. I’d love to see them in a different movie. The trailer suggests that Get On Up will be a standard issue Ray/Walk the Line style biopic focusing on a significant chunk of the subject’s life. A broad scope story about a boy growing up in poverty with a dream who achieves stardom at a price and has to overcome personal demons. The trailer evokes the power and dynamism of James Brown’s music and performances, but doesn’t quite capture his unique brilliance or the darker elements of his life and music. The audience is treated to a roller coaster ride through James Brown’s life accompanied by portions of I Got You (I Feel Good). We see Boseman-as-Brown say and do some of the things we associate with James Brown and make vague pronouncements about the funk. We hear relatives prophesy future greatness, bandmates question Brown’s ‘crazy’ ideas that are later proven to be correct and call him a genius. It all feels so familiar and ordinary, two words that I’d never think to associate with the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk.
If I ran the world, one of the first things I’d do would be to ban all biopics that purport to tell a famous person’s life story. They transform compelling stories about fascinating people like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and yes, even Malcolm X into predictable narratives about archetypes. They eliminate all complexity and disregard inconvenient facts – the relapses, the incomplete stories of redemption, the good things done for bad reasons – that make these historical figures so fascinating. Even the few well executed films in this genre feel like lifeless reenactments populated by caricatures. I love almost all of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and maintain that Denzel should’ve won best actor for that performance, but the movie just didn’t have the room to let Denzel fully explore Malcolm’s brilliance and contradictions, let alone allow the supporting cast to transform flat roles into fully realized characters. Lee’s Malcolm is an interesting folk hero, but I would have been more interested in watching a story that did a better job of distinguishing Malcolm, one of the most fascinating figures in the American civil rights movement, from every other subject of a biopic.
There are films that manage to capture the unique essence of a real life subject while telling a compelling story – Fruitvale Station, Carlos, Frida, Raging Bull – but too many biopics obsess on the origin of the subject to the detriment of the overall narrative. I’ve always preferred stories about interesting people doing interesting things over stories about how someone became interesting. I find myself wishing that the end of those biopics – when the subject becomes the person we all know and love – was the beginning. Another is that too many try to cram a person’s entire life into a conventional three act structure and forget to tell a compelling story. I don’t ever want to watch
Johnny Cash Ray Charles achieve his creative and professional dreams and overcome personal problems rooted in a childhood trauma ever again.
A better approach to the biopic would be to focus on an isolated moment or event in the subject’s life that provided insight into who they were. I want to see a James Brown biopic focusing on a single recording session or how he managed the transition from the 1960’s band to the original JB’s. A story that’s more than a hackneyed explanation of how James Brown became the King of Soul.