Every biopic has to make a choice between the sizzle or the steak - is it going to try to illuminate who the real person was, or is it going to focus on the work that made that person notable? Both approaches have their time and place. Some people are so famous that documenting their accomplishments would feel redundant, but if a biopic is centered on a less well known person it needs to make an argument for why that person is worth knowing about or else it's going to feel underwhelming. Either way the filmmakers have their work cut out for them, because it's not easy to make a larger than life person look human or to recreate well known works of art in a way that feels fresh.
Get On Up, which is a bio-pic of legendary R&B musician James Brown that came out last year, tries to do both at once. And by "at once" I don't mean "in the same movie" I mean "it literally alternates between scenes from his private life and his stage show." It's a risky decision, and it's one that probably wouldn't have worked if they were profiling a more typical performer. However, the more I watched Get On Up the more I realized that it was the best choice they could have made, because with James Brown the sizzle is the steak. On stage he was "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business" - but when he was at home he was working so hard at show business that he pushed his bands towards madness and his wives towards divorce.
Indeed, most of the vignettes we see of James Brown's off-stage life are setting him up to get on stage again. There are a few scenes from his hardscrabble childhood, but every one of them is chosen because it's meant to show how he got a particular tool he later used in his live show - whether that's showing us how his singing style was influenced by church revivals or how he met his long time sideman Bobby Byrd while he was in prison. The stories it tells from his middle and later years are also indexed directly to his music, whether that means showing him negotiating his first record contract or illustrating his importance to the civil rights movement by dramatizing the riot-stopping show he played in Boston the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated. (I suppose the scene where he shot at a woman because she used the bathroom in a business he owned without his permission wasn't performance related, but that's a story that's too weird to be left out, even if it isn't exactly thematically relevant.)
Although those private life scenes are all reasonably well executed, eventually the biographical half of the narrative's lack of subtlety does wear a bit thin. However, that heavy handedness doesn't actually slow the movie down too much, because none of those scenes lasts long enough to slow down the movie's tempo. You are never too far away from a song and dance number in Get On Up - there's so much singing and dancing that it almost feels like a concert film. Well, I should amend that - it feels like a post-modern concert film, since Get On Up mixes songs from wildly different eras into one phantasmagoric whole. But that's another bold decision that works, because every Brown song emphasizes the same primal ingredients, so the film can mash up 50's R&B ballads and 70's funk jams and the primal beat and Brown's crisply co-ordinated dancing will make the connection work.
Get On Up's non-linear style might not be for everyone. It didn't do as well as more traditional biopics like Ray or Walk The Line either at the box office or at the Oscars, and I suspect that's because it doesn't really provide the sort of reliable thrills people have come to expect from this genre. However, that sort of reliability is overrated. Let's leave aside the fact that biopics are becoming too conventional for their own good - although God knows there is a lot that can be said about that particular subject - and focus on the fact that this film's hyperactive style allows it to be a lot more honest. Both Ray and Walk The Line place so much emphasis on their protagonist's private life that you would think that those men were famous because they were womanizing drug addicts. Get On Up won't give you that delusion at all. It shows you Brown's dark side, including his physically abusive relationship with his wife, but it also makes it clear that Brown was a major cultural force for decades because he kept making great music and putting on great shows year after year.
I probably would have enjoyed a film that focused on James Brown's music, because his work is still remarkably vital; once you hear his powerful voice in full form you immediately understand why he was able to inspire people, create trends, even stop riots. I probably also would have enjoyed a film that only showed James Brown's private life; after all, the man did have amazing highs and crazy ass lows. He's probably the only man who ever sold out Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater in the 60s, campaigned for Richard Nixon in the 70s, and led the police on a high speed police chase in the 80s. Combine those two things at once and you've got a movie I really loved. Yes, it's a little hyperactive and a little light on meaning, but what else would you expect from a portrait of the man who wrote "Get Up (I feel like being a) Sex Machine", "I Got Ants in My Pants" and "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing"?