The Envelope: Sharen Davis’ ‘Get On Up’ costumes had to be as flashy as James Brown
When director Tate Taylor called on costume designer Sharen Davis to suit up his cast for the energetic “Get On Up,” a biopic of soul singer James Brown that covers multiple decades, she was already a pro at dressing showy singers for film, having been nominated for Oscars for her work on “Dreamgirls” and “Ray.”
The real Mr. Dynamite was not only a powerhouse of song, he was a sartorial icon, full of color and sass, who reinvented himself constantly, “like Madonna,” says Davis. “His looks were so James Brown, so sure and well-thought-out, they were almost a film on their own,” she says with a laugh. “The 60 costume changes [for actor Chadwick Boseman] gave me a lot to work with.”
Do you know how James Brown developed his look?
Rumor has it, since he was only about 5-foot-6, he figured out he needed to have all legs to make him look taller. I believe it, because he was very perceptive and obsessive about his appearance. And since Chadwick was a lot taller than James, I cheated by making his pants a little bigger and lower. James’ pants were so super tight and, at the end, almost up to his mid-chest that when I did it on Chadwick, he just looked too big and like [Steve] Erkle.
Running down some of the major classic James Brown outfits in the film, what can you tell us about each? Let’s start with that great black-and-white checkered suit and vest.
It was, “How are we going to find that fabric?” because we were mixing it with real concert footage, so it had to be right on. My assistant found it downtown. It wasn’t checkered but an off-white fabric with little black squares. Somehow on camera it worked great. I made three of these suits. We were shooting so fast, Chadwick would dance out of a costume in a day.
The blue sapphire suit he wore at his Apollo Theater concert, that was beautiful.
It was hard to stay up, so we built in suspenders. It turned pretty colors, blue and purple, and was made of a stretch silk-satin. In real life, James’ sapphire suit wasn’t so shiny. It was more of a sharkskin, but I was afraid it would go flat on screen.
Tate and I had talked about it, and we decided let’s make this a little surreal, take things a little higher, as opposed to a little lower, as I did on the more realistic “Ray.” We wanted it as if the audience thinks: What am I watching? We’re all watching this man’s energy and flamboyance.
Early in the film, an older James Brown waves his gun and is arrested while wearing a fairly spooky green-and-gold velour running suit. How did you come up with that color combo?
Luckily, I had some of James’ relatives on set — his grandson and his nephew — and I asked them what color he wore when he was arrested. I was only coming up with white ones. They said “blue,” but then Tate and I decided on something crazy, almost disturbing, because he was so disturbed then. It was the most disturbing one we could find.
The gold lamé Superfly jumpsuit was his iconic flamboyant self. What material was that made from? And where was the “sex machine” belt?
That jumpsuit was made out of Armani fabric, and I thought, “Giorgio would not believe what I’ve just done to his fabric!” It was one of my favorite pieces in the film. I didn’t put the belt in because I didn’t want to distract from that scene’s dancing, which was phenomenal. The belt’s so iconic, it needed to be in the right spot, and he didn’t wear it to that concert.
Did James Brown actually wear a completely red suit, as he did at the end of the film?
He wore it in Georgia in 2003. He had black fringe on his, and I just made it all red. It was a red satin coat with baby silk threads with high-waisted red pants and red boots and a red shirt. I put the red kerchief on his neck because he’d taken off his red bow-tie and left his shirt open, I thought it needed something.
Mick Jagger co-produced the film. He loves his clothes and costumes as another great singer showman. Was he on set?
Yes, and what a great experience that was. He was so supportive and complimentary — a wonderful person. He loves Mississippi as the blues [region], but he understood how challenging it was to work there. I think he really got the big picture.
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