Get On Up, Tate Taylor’s biopic about the great R&B singer James Brown, is a portrait of a performer whose monumental presence and raging ego drove him from a childhood of desperate poverty all the way to the top, and then over the top. Aided by an electric performance by Chadwick Boseman, the film nails Brown’s mastery of the stage and the microphone, and the way he immediately dominated every space he entered. In an early scene, Brown and his band are in Vietnam in 1968, on their way to perform for American troops; the plane is under fire, the group is freaking out, and Brown’s up in the cockpit, intently chattering away at the pilot, as if nothing could possibly be more important than whatever’s on his mind. It’s a sharp portrait of Brown’s undeniable egomania.
But Brown earned every bit of his self-regard, and the film’s great failure is that it doesn’t show us how. 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.