James Brown was a spectacular musician, a wildly interesting character and — best I can tell based on Tate Taylor’s biopic about his life, Get On Up — led a life that did not at all lend itself to a coherent or entertaining narrative. If you want to listen to over two hours of James Brown songs broken up occasionally by a maudlin, predictable, and soporific storyline, Get On Up is perfect. If you want to learn more about James Brown besides the surface-deep impressions one can likely glean from his Wikipedia entry, Get On Up is useless. In fact, five minutes with his Wikipedia entry, and I know far more about Brown than I learned from two hours of Get On Up. Mostly, I learned what the biopic was afraid to come right out and say: James Brown was an asshole.
Granted, the film doesn’t completely shy away from that. But mostly Get On Up is about the people that James Brown pushed away because he was a loner, namely his friends, his bandmates, the mothers of his children, and most of all, Bobby Byrd. James Brown was a narcissist and a prick, but people gravitated to his genius, and that musical talent is hard to deny. But so is the fact that he had three wives, a rape allegation leveled against him, numerous extramarital children (only some of whom he acknowledged), a drug-abuse problem, and plenty of legal troubles, and while the movie doesn’t deny any of this, it ignores most of it. There is only one brief incident of domestic abuse in the film provoked by his wife wearing a cleavage-baring dress, but it is quickly dismissed and the movie — and his relationship with that wife — continue on as though it had never happened.
Indeed, there’s plenty of salacious details in James Brown’s life that might have made for a far more interesting movie, but Get On Up seems to be the movie that the James Brown estate might’ve wanted to have made. It’s a movie deadset on highlighting his musical legacy and ignoring his personal one, and that would be almost forgivable if it actually did more than paint only the broadest strokes about his musical career. It’s a going-through-the-motions biopic, a thin, generic, paint-by-grunts overview of Brown’s entire life.
Still, Get On Up is not entirely worthless. The music is great, and fuck me, Chadwick Boseman is fantastic in this. A year after he depicted the great Jackie Robinson in 42, Boseman digs deeper here, and whatever it is we learn about the spirit of James Brown, we learn thanks almost exclusively to Boseman’s remarkable performance. He’s an incredibly gifted, underappreciated actor, and unfortunately, Get On Up is not going to be the film that gets him the recognition he deserves. But he’ll get it, eventually. He just may need a Marvel film to get him some attention, first. One day, he’ll land a script worthy of his acting talent.