Biopics about singers and singing groups seem to be a current trend. First we had Jersey Boys about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: four young men who went from jail and juvie to great fame and fortune on the strength of an original rock sound. Get On Up opened last week about how the late James Brown rose from destitution and abandonment to become one of the most creative, innovative and influential singers in American history.
Upcoming are movies about Jimi Hendrix, Fela, Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Marvin Gaye, and various rap stars.
I will say up front that the music of the Four Seasons was a much bigger part of my life than that of James Brown. That’s partly because of where I grew up: we didn’t hear much James Brown on the radio and I can only imagine what my parents would have said had they heard his songs, much less seen him performing. But it’s also because I like music that I can sing along to; music that has, you know, melody and lyrics as well as rhythm and a pounding beat. It was easy to sing along to the Four Seasons, especially as I have a soprano voice that could handle the high notes. Singing along to James Brown is difficult. \One of the record producers he auditions with complains that just saying, “Please, please, please” over and over doesn’t constitute lyrics. My point exactly.
- Direction: Jersey Boys was directed by Clint Eastwood while Tate Taylor helmed Get On Up. But the big name behind the latter movie is Mick Jagger. So both films are definitely a country for old men but at least Mr. Jagger had the good sense to put a young man behind the camera and the difference is clear. Also, Mr. Taylor directed The Help and Winter’s Bone, both of which excellent films that were heavily focused on character development.
- Stars: Get On Up stars Chadwick Boseman, who did such a great job as Jackie Robinson in 42, Nelsan Ellis, better known as Lafayette in True Blood, along with Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Lennie James. The actors in Jersey Boys are relatively unknown young men supported by Christopher Walken. They do a good job but there’s just no comparison in terms of firepower. Mr. Boseman’s performance, in particular, is Oscar-worthy. He not only acts, he sings (yes, that’s his voice) dances, and does splits as though he was born to it. I had to keep reminding myself that he was not really James Brown but an actor replicating Mr. Brown’s performance.
- Colorfulness: By this I mean bright hues and visual energy and there just could not be a bigger difference between the two movies. Clint Eastwood shot Jersey Boys in muted shades, almost with a sepia filter. The visual energy of the film is a flat dull brown. Get On Up is as bright and gaudy as an amusement park–or a rock star on stage. Colors pop and sizzle. The eye almost doesn’t know where to look next.
- Emotion : This is the biggest difference. Jersey Boys is joyless. The young men don’t appear to take any pleasure from creating their sound, singing the music, or performing on stage. If the rule of life is to do what you love, they appear to be in the wrong business. Performing is more of a job than a joy and it’s hard to understand why they stay together except for the money. Get On Up is packed with energy. James Brown, as channeled by Mr. Boseman, has more creativity and drive in his little finger than the four young men in Jersey Boys have altogether. When he performs, it’s like someone plugged the movie into a high-voltage outlet.
- Attendance: There were very few people in the theater for both movies. Jersey Boys attracted, as one would expect, a Baby Boomer demographic—people who came to hear the music as much as to see the story. There were even fewer people in the audience for Get On Up, though, although this largely white area could not be considered typical of the film’s target audience. And I wondered how many young moviegoers would know who James Brown was.
Jersey Boys has, to date, brought in $46,222,854 on a production budget of $40 million, so it’s profitable but not a run-away success. In its first week Get On Up has earned $13,585,915 on a reported production budget of $170 million. It’s early days yet but the movie has a long way to go if it’s going to get even close to profitability.
If you like rock and roll, soul music, movies with loud, brassy energy and whole lotta sound, definitely go to see Get On Up.
Please, please, please . . .