Douglas Wolk isn’t happy with the long-awaited James Brown biopic Get On Up:
Treating Brown’s personality as the interesting thing about him means that Taylor doesn’t end up saying much about Brown’s music, the fascinating way it was made, or the colossal effect it had on the culture around it. As far as Get On Up is concerned, James Brown was an unstoppable personality more than he was a musician; the film suffers from “the Great Man theory of funk.”
Brown’s songs… were collaborative and process-based, more than any other pop star’s work: Both on record and on stage, Brown directed and instructed the band, restructuring arrangements on the fly… In Get On Up, though, there’s no sense that anyone else’s voice mattered to him. Brown’s right-hand man and backup singer Bobby Byrd (played as a hapless second banana by True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis) morosely explains that James is a genius whose coattails he’s lucky enough to ride, and that he himself wasn’t meant to be a frontman. The Byrd who had a decadelong string of R&B hits with Brown backing him up—the best-remembered is “I Know You Got Soul”—might have disagreed.
Here two bad cultural fallacies come together: treating artists like self-contained auteurs and thinking every movie has to be an origin story. In the best stories, like in reality, everything and everyone is in medias res.