Fri. Aug 14th, 2020

Contender or Pretender Series: Get On Up

Welcome to the second installment of Contender or Pretender 2014, an Awardswatch series where, in each entry, we profile a different 2014 film and try to determine whether or not it is bound for Oscar glory next winter.

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get On Up
Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Universal’s Oscar hopeful, Get On Up

The Hopeful: Get On Up
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Written by: Tate Taylor
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Craig Robinson
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release Date: August 14, 2014

2014 marks the ten-year anniversary of the release of Ray, Universal Pictures’ Ray Charles biopic that proved to be a smash hit with Oscar, scoring nominations for several top categories including Best Picture and Director, as well as a win for Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of the titular music legend.  A decade later, Universal hopes to repeat that success story by taking on another iconic musical figure- this time the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.  The studio is also hoping to capitalize on a more recent trend – the emergence in the 2010s of the month of August as a successful launching pad for dramas, as a summer increasingly saturated with effects-driven blockbusters leaves adult audiences craving something aimed at them.  2011’s The Help and 2013’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler both had enormously successful theatrical runs from an August release date, which Get On Up is currently slated for.

Universal’s hope that Get On Up will emulate the success of those films is evident not only from the release date but in its choice of The Help helmer Tate Taylor to write and direct.  Under Taylor’s direction, that film was one of the top box office success stories of 2011, scoring four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, though none for Taylor’s own direction or writing of the film.

Taylor brings along with him two stars of that film, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who instead of being paired as maids will now be featured as the twin mother figures in James Brown’s life.  Davis will play Brown’s biological mother, who left him when he was a young boy, while Spencer is the aunt who raised Brown, while working as the madam of a brothel, no less.  For the role of Brown himself, Taylor and Universal turn to Chadwick Boseman, who is no stranger to biopic territory, having portrayed Jackie Robinson in 2013’s 42, which received mixed reviews overall, but positive notices for his performance, as well as a strong box office total.

Viola Davis in Get On Up
Viola Davis in Get On Up

Much like Universal’s other prominent awards hopeful Unbroken (which was covered in our previous installment), a trailer for Get On Up has been released, which provides us some insight on the tone of the film and how it will portray Brown.  The trailer’s tone was bouncy and upbeat, emulating the music of its subject.  Another key piece of information the trailer gives us is that Brown’s mother will appear in the portion of the film that deals with his adult life, rather than just his childhood.  This suggests that Viola Davis will have the requisite amount of screen time to pursue a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, one of the film’s most widely predicted awards bids a year in advance, though it remains to be seen whether she or Spencer has the strongest material to work with in the film.  As for Boseman himself, while he may not have the closest resemblance to the real James Brown, he seems to demonstrate the charisma that is key to any successful portrayal of the great singer.

While this film appears to be perfectly crafted to succeed as middlebrow summer counter-programming, whether it can succeed with winter awards voters is another question entirely.  For one thing, the recent track record of these late summer dramas is decidedly mixed- while The Help indeed connected with Oscar, Lee Daniels’ The Butler’s summer box office went unrecognized by the Academy, and it is the latter film that Get On Up seems to resemble more, what with it being a biopic that attempts to tell the entire life story of its subject, which, as discussed in the previous installment in regards to Unbroken, is a questionable proposition with today’s Academy.

Another problem that the film may face has to do with the trailer itself, or rather, what is not in the trailer.  The trailer suggests a largely positive portrayal of James Brown, whereas the reality is much more complex.  As is sadly true of many musicians of genius, Brown’s personal demons were many and well documented- ranging from drug abuse, to arrests on weapons charges, to frequent clashes with his backing bands, to numerous incidents of domestic violence.   The trailer does show Brown during an early prison stint, as well as what appears to be his 1988 arrest following a high-speed chase with police, but overall it presents its subject in a highly positive light.

Charges of inaccuracy and distortion have been leveled against several Oscar hopefuls in recent years, although the damage that these attacks have done has varied.  On one hand, accuracy questions did nothing to affect the prospects of the last two Best Picture winners, 12 Years a Slave and Argo.  On the other, 2012 hopeful Zero Dark Thirty’s bid for awards glory went off the rails due to critics questioning whether or not the film misrepresented the role torture played in the hunt for terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, to the extent that even members of the United States Congress were weighing in on the controversy.   As a result, the film missed out on several Oscar nominations and potential wins despite being the best-reviewed American film of the year, most prominently for director Kathryn Bigelow.

While it is unlikely, to say the least, that Get On Up will be so controversial that elected officials feel the need to comment, if enough voices in the media take up the narrative that the film is a whitewashed portrayal of Brown, it’s awards prospects could suffer as a result.  However, it is possible that the film will properly address Brown’s darker side, and has simply omitted it from the trailer, though that approach would run the risk of misleading audiences who were led to expect a lighter treatment by the trailer.

Another pitfall the film faces is its distributor.  As discussed in the series’ entry on Unbroken, Universal Pictures, while no longer boasting the consistent success with AMPAS that it did in the early years of the millennium, is still a proficient enough campaigner when it has a top contender on its hands.  Unfortunately for Get On Up, Universal may see Unbroken as that top contender, as they have demonstrated by giving that film a Christmas Day release, traditionally considered the premier launching pad for an awards run.  The mere fact that Universal released a trailer for Unbroken earlier than that for Get On Up despite the former film premiering several months later may further indicate where the studio’s priorities lie.  If Get On Up is in fact Universal’s second campaign priority, it does not bode well for the film; Universal has not had two Best Picture nominees since 1995’s Apollo 13 and Babe.

Lee Daniels' The Butler
Lee Daniels’ The Butler

For the summer audience looking for something besides computerized carnage this summer, Get On Up will certainly be an attractive offering, with (apparently) a light enough tone to make for a fun outing at the movies, but simultaneously promising something more serious than a gun-toting CGI raccoon.  However, the comparisons that this film invokes hardly augur a major awards run; Lee Daniels’ The Butler was a complete miss with Oscar. The Help did receive major nominations, even if its final total of four was less than expected for the film, most prominently the aforementioned snubs for Taylor’s writing and direction. More indicative though was on Oscar night itself, when Viola Davis lost out to Meryl Streep in the Best Actress race despite winning the crucial Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award.  With a potential accuracy controversy ahead, as well likely being Universal’s second priority in this year’s awards race, the film would in my estimation need a truly tremendous box office performance combined with better reviews than the earlier August dramas to factor into the Best Picture or Director race in a significant way.

The same would hold true of a Lead Actor bid for Boseman – though James Brown is an enormously compelling real-life figure whose life is replete with the material that wins actors awards, the Best Actor race more than any other acting category is closely tied to the Best Picture race, and Boseman will likely struggle against competitors in stronger films overall.  Better luck may await Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in the Best Supporting Actress category, traditionally less closely tied to Best Picture.  Furthermore, they would appear to be Universal’s best options in the category, as Unbroken appears to have no significant female roles.  This frees the studio to campaign for whichever of the two women has the strongest showcase in the film, if not both.  Ultimately though, the goal for this film may be merely be a healthy portion of the late summer box office, with any awards success the icing on the cake.  In that respect Get On Up should be a success, if nothing else.

VERDICT: PRETENDER

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: PRETENDER
VIOLA DAVIS: CONTENDER
OCTAVIA SPENCER: CONTENDER

[author image=”http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v193/erikdean/0341151b-3137-4134-9de4-84a1560d6736_zps040dc936.jpg” ]Peter has been on the Awardswatch forums since the start of 2012. He’s a student in the real world and a student of pop culture, and he enjoys predicting who will win awards because it combines his love of pop culture with his love of competition and speculating about the future. His prediction prowess makes him a member of both the Emmy Experts and the Gold Rush Gang. [/author]

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