James Brown biopic not so boffo at the box office

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 29, 2014 

— James Brown was a unique talent: mercurial, scrappy, self-promoting.

“The hardest working man in show business” had a challenging Southern back story of abandonment and discrimination that cried out for a Hollywood treatment.

But “Get on Up,” a movie distributed by Universal Pictures about the late American icon and father of funk that opened Aug. 1 has performed poorly at the box office.

Despite good reviews, a remarkable performance by rising star Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in “42,” and a proven director in Tate Taylor of the “The Help” fame, the Brown biopic has only made $28.9 million domestic gross, according to BoxOffice.com as of late August, not quite making back its $30 million budget. It’s still in 579 U.S. theaters, down from its opening splash of 2,468 screens.

The plunge in popularity has led a Forbes reviewer to conclude that “‘Get On Up’ is sadly finished domestically, as it earned just $947k on its fourth weekend.”

Timing is a problem. The film opened the same day as summer blockbuster, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which has made $256 million in domestic gross so far out of a worldwide gross of nearly $500 million.

“‘Get on Up’ was definitely hurt by the fact that ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ shattered expectations,” said Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com in an email. “The music biopic came out of the gate slow and it’s very difficult to overcome a weak opening in the summer because of how intense the competition is.”

“Get on Up” has not yet been released internationally, with a roll-out scheduled for late September, beginning with France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, according to Universal spokesman Evan Langweiler. But the audience for summer films, at least in the U.S., doesn’t seem too keen on a complex story line, no matter how well done.

“It’s not a summer picture,” said Mary Dalton, a professor of film studies at Wake Forest University. “You think of biopics as fall fare.”

Dalton, who enjoyed “Get on Up,” said that it is not performing as well as two similar biopics, “Ray,” the 2004 film about musician Ray Charles, and “Walk the Line,” the 2005 film about Johnny Cash.

“I think the movie is less accessible than the other two,” she said. “It has a fractured narrative about a troubled person who is not played as a sympathetic figure. I appreciate that about the film.”

Brown was born in 1933 in Barnwell, S.C., and grew up in poverty in South Carolina and Georgia. After his mother left him and his father when he was about five years old, he ended up living with an aunt in one of her brothels. The “Godfather of Soul” started out singing gospel songs and worked his way up as a singer with the “Famous Flames” before striking out on his own, often willing to sacrifice friendships for a lucrative deal. He made his entourage, even long-time friends, call him “James Brown” and he could be abusive with his wife.

The film depicts his vintage moves on stage; the splits and that signature strut that appeal to audiences. One of the performers he influenced, Mick Jagger, is a producer of the film.

“I acknowledge the visual aspects of this story, but what really drew me was that I could see this idea of self-preservation, of wanting to do something very badly,” Taylor, the director, said in an interview,

Brown, he said, could not read or write music, although the performer did pen the lyrics for many of his songs.

“He was a story-teller,” the director said.

Boseman, who plays Brown, is from the same part of South Carolina as Brown, near the Georgia border, and takes over the Brown persona, from the walk to the talk to the swagger to the singing. The actor, who was not trained as a singer, throws himself into such vintage Brown songs as “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” “Get Up (I Feel Like a) Sex Machine,” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag .”

The movie was a hit with critics, with the website Rotten Tomatoes scoring it at 78 percent among professional reviewers. Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, who liked the film, thinks that it may find a following in other medium, such as TV, laptops, tablets and DVD.

“It seems like now the cultural space for a film like that is television,” said Thompson. “It’s a serious film on thought-provoking topics that’s not going to have a gang of 14-year-olds on summer vacation. It doesn’t require a big screen.”

Box office appeal also could have suffered because Brown, who died on Christmas Day, 2006, at age 73, was likely not as well-known to millennials as he was to baby boomers or older; people like William Ferris, senior associate director of University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of the American South.

“I am a total fan of James Brown’s,” he said. “I thought he was a genius.”

Email: mrecio@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @maria_e_recio.

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