In This Cinematic Telling Soul Godfather James Brown Taught Us How to Get On Up
by Brad Balfour
Though by no means a perfect film or conventional biopic, the recently released Get On Up wrangles with the complicated life of one of pop music’s pioneers and enduring legends: James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.
If any artist deserves biopic immortalization, it’s the ultimate funkmeister, the late James Brown. When he died On Christmas Day 2006 of congestive heart failure, the 73-year-old star had built a musical legacy both historically and stylistically, defining a whole style of music and dancing as well as having gained — and lost — a financial and professional empire.
The kaleidoscopic nature of the Get On Up press conference offered a look into the making of this film, not unlike the film itself. Held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, it illustrated the ups and downs in Brown’s life story with the same energy and drive that Brown himself had.
While the film suffers from a variety of limitations — some possibly imposed by Brown’s family — director/producer Tate Taylor (The Help) uses a challenging screenplay by the brother duo of Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth to envision the life of Brown as a tale of determination at the expense of all else. Employing a touch of madness, Brown takes control of his life and career in this drama with such manic force that he has affected many generations beyond his own life. Instead of a more accurate version of Brown’s life, warts and all, this film glosses over or compresses actual events and incidents into a structure that serves Taylor’s rendition of this mythic figure.
Attending this press conference were the uncanny star of 42, Chadwick Boseman, who plays Brown, and Nelsan Ellis, who plays his best friend and long-suffering second, Bobbie Byrd. Also on the podium: Dan Aykroyd, who plays his mentor/manager Ben Bart, as well as Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer, who plays the madam who was the young Brown’s early supporter.
Rolling Stones founding member Mick Jagger (one of the film’s producers), director Tate Taylor and veteran producer Brian Grazer were also on hand answering questions.
You were involved in this film for a long time. What was it like to prepare the movie, to partner with Mick Jagger on it and finally get it to work?
Brian Grazer: Working with Mick Jagger is one of the greatest thrills of my life. I read about James Brown about 16 years ago. I thought it would be amazing to make a movie about James Brown. I transitioned from that point to convincing James that I should make his life story into a movie, and then I owned the rights for about 12 years.
During those years I would have to renew the rights, let James Brown direct me, hire different screenwriters, once upon a time a different director. But it was a long, tedious, arduous process, and when James Brown died, I lost the rights and then they became even further complicated.
Mick and I knew each other before, but a year later he had an opportunity to read the script, and ended up with the rights. [We decided] we would do [this film] together. It’s been a fantastic process.
Mick Jagger: Sounds rather arduous. It was much easier for me than Brian. Brian did all this work in the long distant past, and obviously it was very complex. It was much simpler for me, because I was asked by a business associate and friend if I would make a documentary about James Brown. I said, “Let me think about that.”
I woke up in the morning and said, “Let’s do a feature” and he said, “What a good idea.” Of course, being Hollywood, there already was a feature — there’s always a feature. Whatever you can think of, there’s always a feature about it. Then I learned of the script and I learned of Brian’s previous involvement, so that’s the short version of how I got involved.
Actually, in Hollywood terms, from the beginning of my involvement to this point of having the premiere of the movie on August 1st, it’s been a relatively short time. Brian had done all this hard work in the beginning, but since we started the second part of the journey, it’s been really quick in Hollywood terms.
Could you explain exactly what you did — were you involved in casting?
Mick Jagger: We had this project and had this script, which is really quite a good script. But we inevitably were going to leave the script alone. So we talked about how we could make it better, more relevant, more exciting.
Then Brian and I had to convince the studio that this was a movie that should be made. This is one of the difficult parts. Before you can start casting people, you have to know the studio will give you the money.
So after we had successfully done that, Brian and I talked about casting. We were very pleased to get Tate on board very quickly. He was very enthusiastic. You never go quite as fast as you want, so it really helps to have someone like Tate who really wants to get going.
We talked about casting all the different roles, and I had the first say in these things, but we were all involved in these areas. It was a very good experience.
Since James had an entrepreneurial spirit, what business that he had created surprised you?
Chadwick Boseman: The most surprising venture was the James Brown Food Stand. I don’t know if you all know about that one. It was part of him wanting to recycle money within the black community before it goes outside of the community — to build. It actually was a genius idea. It obviously is not still around, but that was the thing that was the most surprising for me.
Dan Aykroyd: I would say nothing that James did entrepreneurially would surprise me. He was so broad-ranging in terms of his understanding of business. How to handle people, how to handle money, how to balance a book, how to make a tour more profitable than any other artist. He extended it into the radio stations and the merchandising. He just got it, and he got it from a very early age.
Octavia, your character was one of the few people in James’ life who really stood by him and believed in him when he was a kid. Did you channel anyone in your life to get into that character, and why did you want to tell this story?
Octavia Spencer: There was very little channeling that needed to take place in order to understand what she was providing for him.
James Brown was definitely a music icon, and for those of us who are barely forty — that would be all of us — there was so much about the man in front of the music that I realized with the whole idea about him, I knew so little about him as a person. We know how the story ends, but perhaps not how it began and maybe a little bit of the middle.
I was really intrigued by that and the fact that you have this icon in Mick Jagger, this icon in Brian Grazer, and the genius of Tate Taylor; I really had to muscle my way in there.
Mick can you recall when you learned of James Brown, and how that influenced you as a performer?
Mick Jagger: My recall of it is about 50 years ago and it’s not perfect. Will you forgive me? But it was a very exciting show.
James Brown was at the Underneath the Stars Festival, but there were many people at the show that were interesting to me for the first time. I’d never met Marvin Gaye before, for instance. I got the opportunity to chat with him. There [were] a lot of us on the show. It was a pretty crazy day.
I’d seen James Brown before one time, at the Apollo, and James was a bit annoyed about not being the last on the show. I was the only one that met him before, of all the people working on the show, including the producers of the show. I have no idea who they were.
I was the fall guy, because I was like 20 or something, so they said, “You go talk to him, you know him, you go call him out.” And when you’re 20, you say, “Sure.” Now it’s “That’s not my job, that’s your job.”
Of course it didn’t work. It might have somewhat assuaged him, but it played out and it was what it was. He did this amazing performance and we went on after, but in the end I don’t think it really mattered. We had to work harder, and he worked harder, and maybe it was a better show because of it.
How do you go on after James Brown? Did it influence your stage performance?
Mick Jagger: He influenced me a lot. Amongst a lot of other people, he influenced me in lots of ways. I could never do the dance routines like James, and I never spent the time and effort that Chad had to do to do the fantastic job that he does in this movie, because I didn’t want to be an imitator of that.
But the thing about him that impressed me, as with other people that I was influenced by at the time – Little Richard being the other one, who is in this movie as well – was how to interact with an audience, the most important thing.
I’m sure that Chad got some of that into making this movie because James was all about interacting with the audience. It wasn’t just your performance, it’s about their performance too. It’s about how they perform and they react and you react to them, the interplay between the both of you.
What were the challenges in portraying James Brown?
Chadwick Boseman: The entire thing was a challenge. When I looked at the role, the reason I was a bit scared, there was no part of it that was just straightforward, easy, like, “you’ve done that before.”
A lot of people will say, “Where you’re from, South Carolina” — but [I’m] from the low country of South Carolina, and it’s different. It’s just not the same thing. I’ve spent quite a bit of time out of South Carolina.
We went down to Augusta to meet the family, and it’s pretty much on the border between Georgia and South Carolina. I stayed there a little bit longer, and just drove around, saw the family and soaked up as much of it as I could before we started. This was right before we started.
There was no part that was easy. Sixty percent of my fear was from the dancing. 30% of it was the caricatures that have been projected of him, and trying to get past what people think they know. But I don’t think there was any easy part [even the other 10%].
Tate, how was it reuniting with Viola Davis, who was Oscar-nominated for her work in your film The Help.
Tate Taylor: It’s always a joy to work with Viola. I’ll sum it up this way: When Viola comes to work and there’s a certain scene that you know she’s going to do, you notice that people in the production office happen to be on the set that day — the accountants, the Teamsters, for some reason they are all walking around and it’s a little more crowded. Then she starts to work and it’s much like live theatre. Everyone just watches.
I am so fortunate to have her trust and to be able to work with her, because she really is a treasure, one of the greatest actresses on the planet. So to get her in anything I can do is a sheer joyous, joyous bonus.
And Chadwick, what was it like working with Viola, especially in the very powerful scene where James meets his mother?
Chadwick Boseman: I’ve worked with her more than once. It was exactly what he said. Once we started the scene, I wasn’t thinking, “Viola’s in it” or anything like that. It was such an intense scene for me. It felt like she had set up our relationship — she didn’t talk to me.
We had a meeting the night before when the scene was being revamped because we both had problems with it. That scene changed. When we were in that meeting, Viola never really talked with me, she only talked with Tate. I assumed that she didn’t want to build a personal relationship, she wanted that distance to be there — and it was, when she stepped into the room.
I knew it was over when she took that drink and she gulped it down and I was like “Oh my gosh!” I never really got up. We shot her side in the footage of me standing in that scene first, and then once I sat down, I don’t think I got up for six hours.
They brought my lunch to me and I was still sitting in that same seat. They turned the cameras around and shot my side, because I didn’t want to leave the energy and tension that was being built between us. It was a very, very intense moment of filming.
One great thing about the film is that it has a broad swath of James Brown songs, a lot of the best there is. We all have a memory of a James Brown song that affected us or when we had the experience of hearing him or seeing him live. Can you all talk about a song or songs that you remember or an experience of hearing James Brown and how it first hit you or affected you?
Octavia Spencer: I remember being on 22nd and Lehigh Avenue, and someone was playing, “[Say It Loud] I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I can’t remember how old I was, but I’m pretty sure I was not out of school. What I remember, a guy was at the stop light and the music was blaring, and I remember something in me stood a little bit higher. I puffed my chest out at that song. That was the first James Brown feeling that I really remember.
Nelsan Ellis: “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Chadwick Boseman: Mine is the same, actually. I think that would be it. I’ll always remember James Brown playing, being part of the soundtrack of my life. But if I had to pick one, it would be “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Tate Taylor: For me it’s one song that brings up a memory. Primarily it was my mother’s. She was a single mom and she loved James Brown and he was on her record player a lot. As a child it shaped me.
When we started filming the movie, she brought me all of her James Brown records. I had forgotten that she used to play them. They had her maiden name and her dorm room at her college on them, where it said, “Please return to this room.”
And it made me think about her challenges, and James’s challenges, and it was kind of cool that she listened to his music. She never said that was the reason, but I wanted to use all of them for that reason.
Mick, do you have one?
Mick Jagger: The Live at the Apollo album was my real introduction to James Brown. I loved every tune and knew them all backwards – all the intros, the segues, the instrumental segues. What was odd, though, was I had never actually seen him perform, but I had imagined the whole thing in my head, so I played his record to death.
Actually when we were prepping the movie, Chad and I played the very long track called “Lost Someone” where he interacts with the audience on that. That brought it back to the first time I ever played it.
Chadwick Boseman: I had that song on repeat for days, just listening to it over and over. I would leave it on in the crib and come back and it would still be on, because I wanted to walk in and have that playing while we were shooting this movie. There’s something about it…
Mick Jagger: There’s something about it — it’s so emotional, and also you can hear all the audience interaction. It’s such a great [number].
Brian Grazer: When I was in high school I was in a low-rider car club (laughs). I’d plug in the 8-track, and literally it was the Rolling Stones, Little Anthony & the Imperials, and James Brown. And James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s World” I loved and it resonated [with me]. It had that reverb sound and it would go on and on and on. So I loved that, and I loved “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Jill Scott: Well, I’m a child of the ’70s and we were a James Brown household. But what really resonates with me is the stuff of the ’90s — “Living in America.” I love all of the early stuff, but what I like is that his music transcended age groups, and he was able to stay relevant throughout. So those are my two for right now.
Dan Aykroyd: I’m a little older than the kids, so we can really get down to it. 1968, Montreal, Canada. The building is gone now, it’s called the Esquire Show-Mar. You sat at the bar and the performers would dance along the bar. So during his performance, when Chet Daniel drops the cape on James Brown in “Please Please Please” — [it breaks your heart] — that was a seminal moment for my six friends and me.
We squeezed into one of my friends’ mother’s Mustang and came down from Ottawa to see the show. There was James Brown’s boot heel this far from our beers, dancing up and down the Show-Mar. With a full band, yet they had to pack them on this small stage, the horns, the rhythm — everybody in the band saw early on that I loved them.
What was it about your characters and performances that will stay with you for the rest of your career?
Chadwick Boseman: First off, I had to try to get rid of James Brown after each shot. I had to. That was a process that I found I would have to keep. I think there’s definitely the responsibility to yourself to be the best that you can be, and the responsibility to your fans that follow you. There’s a certain quality that I think he always felt that you should have to pay to see him. I wouldn’t take it that far.
If you were seeing his show, he would get his hair done again before he came out because he felt like you should feel like you’re seeing “James Brown.” He didn’t put a cap on like we do today and try to get out before people can catch you. He wanted you to have that experience of seeing him in all his glory.
There’s something to be said for that. It’s not just you performing onstage or onscreen, it is a connection that you want to make with people. Before, I would probably be that person who would put on a cap and leave. But I do feel like I can take a bit of that away in some other things.
Dan Aykroyd: I would say that I took with me the wisdom, advice, gentle urgings and the bandwidth tuning of our terrific director. I’m going to remember how he directed me in this movie and it’s going to help me with maybe lesser talents as I go forward.
Octavia Spencer: I would second that. I would also say that every job is different. Every group of people, every character is different, but your process is usually the same once you learn how to do it. You have to make sure that you do the work to ground the person in reality so that you aren’t building some sort of caricature or the performance doesn’t ring hollow.
You have to connect to the piece, and you can’t play your character then judge in some way. So when I read that I ran a brothel, I thought, “Great” because back in 1950, what were her choices? So I thought, “What a great enterprising young woman,” and I was happy to play her.
Jill Scott: I really would watch people and get to know their idiosyncrasies. My mother was in an abusive relationship early in her life, and she took us away from that. I couldn’t quite understand why she stayed. I have been able to learn some things about that particular kind of woman – the level of love.
Someone would easily say it’s foolishness to stay with someone who is abusive to you. But what I learned about DeeDee is that there is a love that’s greater, wider and more powerful than anything I as yet understand in this life, and I will always take that with me. I will always take that with me.
Do I want to be in an abusive relationship? Of course not! But I understand it better as I go on in this life, absolutely. And DeeDee still loved James. Period. I think I do, too.
Nelsan Ellis: I’m kind of schizophrenic in that I take a little piece of every character I’ve played whether I like him or not. I take him — or her — with me. I also think you can’t judge the person you play, so I learn from the humanity of the people I play, especially the individual character in mind.
How much did you know about Bobby Byrd when the script came to you and how did you prepare for the role?
Nelsan Ellis: I knew nothing about Bobby Byrd before the script. I didn’t know who Bobby was or that he even existed, so I had to do a search to find out who he was. Man, I fell in love with the dude and I’m very proud to have played him.
You have Bobby Byrd, PeeWee and all the other members of the band – but why was there no Fred Wesley? Were there legalities or what?
Tate Taylor: There were. With a story as vast as James Brown, his whole life and the people involved in his life, it’s a frustrating embarrassment of riches of all the people that you wish to have in your film.
There was actually a scene where we met Fred Wesley. But unlike a novel, [where] you can have a 700-page book, you can’t have a seven-hour movie, and we had to make tough choices.
What really reigned supreme for me and the story is protecting what we didn’t know about James, and where an audience could learn versus what they knew. It was hard at times, but we were following that guideline the choices of what we kept in became pretty easy.
Chadwick, Nelsan, and Dan, throughout the movie you demonstrate great chemistry in your friendships. What do you attribute that to?
Nelsan Ellis: Mr. Boseman is a great actor, and he’s such a generous actor so it was easy to [act] with him.
Chadwick Boseman: It’s my first time working with either of them. I’ve been a fan of Nelsan for years. I watched him in True Blood and in roles in movies, so I already knew it was going to be a good chemistry. He seemed to work from a place that was so truthful, and I felt like once we got over the dance rehearsals, there was like [rapport] because we were both feeling similar pain. We went through a hell together.
Dan Aykroyd is a legend, so it was a pleasure to have him on this movie because of the enthusiasm he brought to it. Also because he knew James Brown. He was super-cool off set as well. When I was onscreen with him, it was the most fun. I had so much fun working with him.
I definitely felt like this was an interesting relationship that James Brown had with Ben Bart – “Pop.” I remember reading in the autobiographies and biographies that he called this white man “Pop.” The more I read about it, the more I understood the friendship. There was a friendship, and there was a mentorship that Pop had for him. It was easy to have that with Dan because he gave so much.
Dan Aykroyd: He’s straight-up lying because he’s an ace of an actor. He’s a great actor. You get on the set and you’re in it together. You’re an actor, you face yourself, you’re there with the director, in a common environment of creativity, and you just do the work.
It’s not hard to love Chad here, for this and of course, for his past work. He did an incredible job in 42, another breakthrough movie about what we should be thinking about in this country at all times.
He’s an enormously lovable and extremely talented man, and my affection in real life for him I think translates in the movie. I think you can see it, because Pop really gave his all for James Brown and they had a really great friendship.
Mick Jagger: This is a bit more than a generic biopic, really. So it stands out from that genre a little more. I don’t think it’s really got anything to do with social networking or being online or being on Twitter or anything else. Either you are compelled by this movie or not.
I find this movie is compelling. Telling the story of this guy, a story of adversity. Telling a story of how he’s being single-minded, how he’s almost obsessed with making himself into somebody from nothing. The price he has to pay for that. There’s always a price to pay for this one single-minded drive to be somebody. You pay for that in some way. I think this movie shows the price you pay for it.
This is a compelling story. It could have been a fictional story. You could have written it as a fictional piece. The fact that it’s about someone who is no longer alive obviously makes it more interesting, but it’s the compelling nature of the story.
What do you feel is James Brown’s enduring legacy in the music world?
Mick Jagger: As someone said earlier, people from all different backgrounds and all different age groups, they all love him. So he’s obviously of interest to a lot of people. You would say that he’s the most sampled, free, hip-hop artist and all these things. He is all those things.
His actual recordings are still loved and they are still played on the dance floor in various forms or another, wherever you go. All these different people from all over the world – all different countries, all different groups, all different cultures – they all know him.
I’ve been on tours where we have actually played a James Brown song. Other pop bands you’d think wouldn’t relate to James Brown, but they all know that music. They can play those numbers. It’s all part of musical history. So if you want to be a musician, this is part of the canon, you have to know this. If you don’t know this, you’re not complete.
For musicians, and for dancers alike, he’s made this huge lasting contribution which goes on. And hopefully, I think, this movie does his legacy justice.
Tate Taylor: I can’t speak the language of music. I get a little embarrassed when people ask me specific questions about notes and bars and downbeats. It’s just not in my head. But what I loved, that Chad and I discovered when we went to speak with his daughters – and this is reflected in the “Cold Sweat” rehearsal – is that they said, “Daddy didn’t talk music. He didn’t read music.”
I don’t think he ever tried to. He spoke about music from what feels good, and he would explain emotionally to his band. He would utter sounds and say, “Do this, do that.”
That’s really cool. It came from the heart and a feeling. He may not have had a profound way to articulate it or say it in ways that big musicians would understand, but he made it accessible to me. It made me realize that everybody can do something, they have a right to do something, if they feel it.
Dan Aykroyd: As far as connecting with this generation and the next generation, once this movie comes out, it’s going to be on iTunes, people are going to be emailing each other YouTube clips of dancing and singing from the movie. You’re going to have young people really connecting to this and sending each other their favorite clips.
I think this next generation will really get it about James Brown and I hope this next generation comes out the door, puts their laptops and texting aside and come and spends an hour and a half with us in the theater.
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