Before James Brown became the Godfather of Soul, before he donned the cape, before he even cut a record, he was an impoverished kid from rural Georgia.
In the new biopic “Get on Up,” the singer’s hardscrabble childhood sets the stage for a tumultuous fight to the top. Brown (played in his boyhood by brothers Jamarion and Jordan Scott) is raised in a brothel after being abandoned by destitute parents. He spends his nights as a barker, singing and dancing on the roadside to lure in prospective johns.
One Sunday, he’s awakened by a glorious sound. In worn boots, he walks the dusty path to a nearby gospel church. Inside, he’s swept up by the joyous voices of the choir, but it’s the flamboyant preacher — clad in a crisp, white suit with dollar bills pinned to his lapels — who seals the deal.
Between the dirt and the heavens, James Brown’s musical aesthetic was born.
It’s one of many pivotal scenes that capture the singer’s rise from staggering poverty and neglect to one of the most revered, misunderstood and game-changing performers in modern American music. Starring Chadwick Boseman (“42"), the story follows the hardest-working man in showbiz from his childhood in the ‘30s through a career apex during the civil rights era to the drug-addled, shotgun-wielder in the ‘90s.
Director Tate Taylor knew what most of us did about James Brown before making the film — he was a larger-than-life character who popularized soul, founded funk, had countless children and often tangled with the law. But Taylor was intent on showing the man behind the multiple hits, hairdos, wives and money woes.
“It’s the showmanship, his missteps, his blunders that people tend to remember: Eddie Murphy on ‘SNL’ playing Brown in a hot tub or some of the poor decisions [Brown] made later in his life,” said Taylor, a white Southerner whose last film, “The Help,” also dealt with black culture in the Jim Crow South.
“But when I looked closer, I saw this brilliant, complicated genius. I don’t think people know what he did to change music, to change what people of his race felt they could accomplish in this world. He was an unsuspecting hero.”
Yet like Brown’s career, it wasn’t easy getting the Universal film, which opens Aug. 1, off the ground. Musical biopics have had a mixed track record at best — for every “Walk the Line” there’s a “Jersey Boys” or “Great Balls of Fire!” — and Brown’s complex legacy presented particular problems. It took heavy lifting and big names from both the film and music worlds — Brian Grazer and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger — to make it happen.
Grazer tried to make the film before Brown died in 2006 but was unsuccessful because of liens, family and legal issues (South Carolina has taken control of the estate) and questions of ownership over the performer’s songs.
Jagger was thinking of making a documentary about Brown. The Rolling Stones had ties with Peter Afterman, a music supervisor who’d worked with Brown’s estate to iron out publishing issues related to the soul singer’s vast song catalog. When Jagger heard about Grazer’s stalled project, he combined forces with the producer.
“In my formative years as a performer, he was very important to me,” said Jagger, who first met Brown in 1964 at the famous T.A.M.I. Show, a multibilled concert (Jan and Dean, the Supremes, among others) at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium that was shot and made into a film. “The way he super-energized the audience, the way he interacted with them. A lot of that comes from the church. I didn’t have that, so I learned a lot from looking at James, the way he moved, the way he held an audience’s attention.”
Though Boseman physically doesn’t resemble Brown, he musters enough moxie, charisma and athletic ability (the strut, the spark, the multiple stage splits) to play a convincing Godfather of Soul. He also portrays a troubled artist who, while amassing a fan base, drove away those closest to him with a punishing work ethic and a demand for perfection.
The volatile Brown character is a far cry from the more internal role of Jackie Robinson that Boseman played in “42.” “I tried to find out, did [Brown] change when he came off that stage, and did he even know it if he did?” said Boseman, 32. “He was a complicated person, but he was also just a man.”
It’s those complexities (and of course the music) that attracted Grazer. “On one hand, he’s a really tough guy who couldn’t trust anybody,” said the producer. “But on the other hand, he’s a guy who can sing ‘Please, Please, Please’ or ‘Try Me,’ so there’s inner vulnerability and beauty about him.”
At a hotel in Santa Monica, Boseman and Taylor discussed the film — also featuring “Help” stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as well as Nelsan Ellis and Dan Aykroyd — and what it took to bring Brown to life on-screen. Taylor is outgoing and animated, Boseman low key and a bit shy. Both spoke with Southern accents (Taylor is from Mississippi, Boseman is from South Carolina), and bonded over their roots.
“People always said they couldn’t understand what James was saying because of his accent, but I could,” said Taylor.
“Me too,” said Boseman. “He sounds like my uncle.”
“People can’t understand what I’m saying a lot of the time,” joked Taylor. “I’ll say ‘commode’ instead of ‘toilet.’ Yesterday, I asked who the proprietor was of the restaurant, and the person I was with said, ‘Did you just ask who the proprietor is?’”
The two laughed. “Whoever I cast as James had to have a touchstone to the South,” continued Taylor. “That soil is in their veins, their genetic makeup, their family tree. Geography is very important. It’s someone’s soul. It’s who we are.”
To research the role of Brown, the two studied footage of the performer, combed recordings, read numerous biographies and interviewed family members (of which there are many). The pacing of the film is as frenetic as Brown himself, jumping back and forth among time periods and scenarios, as if challenging the audience to keep up.
One of biggest challenges in making the $30-million film, though, was re-creating the spirit of Brown in his moves onstage. Back in the day, the singer’s shows went on sometimes for hours, filled with dance moves that have yet to be duplicated (see Prince/Bruno Mars for close approximations).
That’s where Jagger stepped in. Unlike many musical biopics that never seem to get that rock-star thing right, “Get on Up” had one of the world’s best consultants. Jagger, who helped choose songs for the film, also helped Boseman with the live scenes.
“Just the physicality of being a performer,” Jagger said by phone from New York. “We played the music, and I tried to get across to Chad what it felt like to be a performer. How it was out there. We played [Brown’s album] ‘Live at the Apollo’ quite a lot and talked about how James was managing it, how he was teasing the audience. How he was seducing them.”
Boseman mastered choreography such as the mashed potato and that signature shuffle for the numerous performance scenes in the film. He also sang along to master recordings like “Please, Please, Please” and “Cold Sweat,” so the music heard in the film is a combo of the actor and the real James Brown.
“It was like training for battle every day,” Boseman said of the grueling process. “Six times a week, I would rehearse for five hours, song after song. The most difficult part was that Brown’s movement at the microphone was reminiscent of what a boxer does. There’s a one-two step, then a punch. He’s using that to keep the band in step with him. He’s also using it to punctuate. Those small steps that expand into the bigger routine are pretty much driving the songs.”
Taylor estimated that Boseman did more than 90 splits in one day when they re-created a Brown concert. “We kept doing it over and over,” said Taylor. “We wore his ass out.”
The film was shot largely in Natchez, Miss., using a forest and existing buildings — the old jail, a diner, a school auditorium — as sets. Brown’s wardrobe, from sharkskin suits to sparkly capes to wide-lapelled shearling coats, helps set the time period. And then there’s the ‘do: “Make it higher,” Brown’s character suggests early in the film. “Hair rising up to the lord like a flame.”
As charming as Brown could be (or at least as Boseman portrays him), music biopics are risky business. They often miss the mark with critics and audiences alike. And Hollywood is generally clueless when it comes to the music world. Is there any doubt that the likable Dennis Quaid should have never played the demonic Jerry Lee Lewis?
The question is, can “Get on Up” succeed against those odds and cross over like Brown did? It’s a challenge that inspires Taylor.
“There’s a fear that I don’t want to go backwards, so I relate to that in James,” he said. “Because where we are from [he nods toward Boseman], you don’t get to do this. You don’t get to have this fantastic life we have. I think a lot of his drive and seeing poor treatment of people was just really a demand for excellence. Because if you slide, you may keep going down, and James wanted to keep rising.”