By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 4, 2014 at 4:56PM
After the packed "Get On Up" Producers Guild of America screening Thursday at the Pacific Design Center, star Chadwick Boseman, who channels mercurial funk star James Brown in the musical biopic, earned a rousing standing ovation. And again he got another one at the Academy the following weekend. During the PGA Q & A, Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer (Ron Howard's "A Beautiful Mind"), explained that it took decades to get the $30-million period drama made, even after African-American biopic hits such as "Ray," which won an Oscar for Jamie Foxx, and "42," which launched Boseman as a rising star.
Universal eventually released the picture, insisting on a PG-13 rating and an August opening. Is that too early for a proper Oscar campaign, or did the film need some room to build an audience, as "The Butler" did? Even with Harvey Weinstein behind a Lee Daniels film starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, that true story fared better at the summer box office ($116 million domestic) than the Oscars; it whiffed on nominations day.
"The Help" writer-director Tate Taylor, in his quest to not churn out the standard biopic, may have gone too far with an unconventional story structure, which predictably, is getting slammed by some top critics. The Los Angeles Times' Ken Turan says it hurts the film's narrative engagement. I was not put off by the disjointed narrative--I was riveted by the character and the music--which I grew up with and adore. And while the film makes disjunctive cuts, especially from a pivotal backstage encounter with Brown's mother (the always-exemplary Viola Davis), when we do return to the scene, the emotional payoff is there.
There's no question that Boseman nails a challenging role. Based on the PGA reaction and degree of difficulty in this performance, which the actor admits terrified him, from the dance moves and volatile real-life persona to the singing (they mix him with a remastered Brown), I initially thought that Boseman would easily land awards consideration from critics, SAG, Globes and the Academy acting branch. But in order for that to happen the August release needs to cross over to a wider audience. It opened with strong reviews (70% on Metacritic) to an OK $14 million and a 70% African-American audience that was also 90% over age 25. (Scribe Patrick Goldstein describes being unable to persuade his son to go see the film.)
And Boseman's performance is earning a reaction not dissimilar to those of Oscar-winners Foxx and Witherspoon. But both films nabbed slightly better reviews and a PR and awards season boost from a Toronto Film Festival showcase. Universal chose to go in the less competitive August time frame.
It doesn't help that within the African-American community there is a meme--spread on Twitter by well-followed @SpikeLee--that this is the white man's version of the James Brown story. Folks assume (did they see the film?) that because "Get On Up" is produced, written and directed by white men, they must have soft-pedaled James Brown. In fact, Taylor and Boseman admitted at the PGA that they would have loved to release the R-rated version of the movie. Taylor tangled with the MPAA ratings board, and is unhappy with the edge that he lost. Producer Grazer explained that in order to persuade Universal to release the film, he had to agree contractually to a PG-13 rating. That's really too bad.