Get on Up, the James Brown biopic opening this week, is a perfectly serviceable piece of entertainment with a truly fine performance at its center thanks to Chadwick Boseman. But it also shows how easily life-spanning biopics can fall into familiar traps, no matter how interesting the subject is.
Director Tate Taylor, best known for The Help, and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth do an admirable job of trying to play with the biopic formula. Especially at its outset, the film jumps around in time—it begins with the circumstances surrounding one of Brown's 1988 arrest and jumps to his 1968 trip to Vietnam, before starting in on his childhood. Still, despite Taylor and the Butterworths' best intentions, it's clear where this is going. James Brown is going to have a talent that no one can deny. James Brown is going to become rich and famous. James Brown is going to woo women. James Brown is going to have a falling out with his band. James Brown is going to turn to drugs. James Brown will remain a legend. It's familiar to anyone who has seen Walk the Line, Ray, or, for goodness sakes, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story. Earlier this summer Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys, a far worse movie than Get on Up, also adhered to this formula.
At 138 minutes, Get on Up starts to drag as it lurches forward to its inevitable conclusion: some grand concert where Brown proves he's still the best. Still, even though the movie doing essentially a cradle-to-grave take on the life of Brown, it also feels like it barely scratches the surface. The film purports to tell his whole story, but only lightly touches on his financial troubles, his descent into drug use, and his troubling history of domestic abuse. The movie stops recounting the relationships he had with women after his second marriage to DeeDee Brown. It is definitely a PG-13 take on the life of James Brown, and one understands why that is a more commercially viable way to look at the life of a major celebrity.