Stop Trying to Tell an Entire Life Story in a Single Movie

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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 LineRay, 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. 

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But if the filmmakers wanted to steer clear of the unsavory elements of Brown's persona that so dominated the latter part of his life, why didn't they just tell a more condensed story. Why not make a movie about a fascinating year in his life? In 1968 Brown performed in Boston the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. That concert has been credited as the reason that city wasn't consumed by riots that night. That same year, as PBS notes, Brown went to the White House on the invitation of Lyndon B. Johnson and performed for the troops in Vietnam. It was also the year he recorded "Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud." Get on Up references all of these events in Brown's life, but never draws a throughline between them, or explores them beyond an obligatory, "hey, he did that." 

Biographical films tend to be entirely more successful when they focus on specific periods in their subjects lives. Last year's Kill Your Darlings looked at Allen Ginsberg's introduction to the world of the Beat poets by way of the mysterious character Lucien Carr. Even Lincoln didn't try to tell the entire story of Lincoln's life. Neither of these examples are music movies, of course, which have the added challenge of satisfying the public's appetite for their favorite songs. But that kind of mandatory inclusiveness is part of the problem.  Get on Up is ultimately hobbled by the degree of difficulty in producing a truly exciting movie—even about someone as truly exciting as Brown—when one is trying to fit an entire life into a span of about two hours. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.