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In This Cinematic Telling Soul Godfather James Brown Taught Us How to Get On Up

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

Chadwick Boseman and Octavia Spencer at the New York Press Conference for "Get On Up."  Photos by Brad Balfour copyright 2014.

Chadwick Boseman and Octavia Spencer at the New York Press Conference for “Get On Up.” Photo by Brad Balfour copyright 2014.

Chadwick Boseman, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Jill Scott, Dan Aykroyd, Mick Jagger, Tate Taylor and Brian Grazer

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.

Chadwick Boseman with Brian Grazer and Dan Aykroyd at the New York Press Conference for "Get On Up." Photo by Brad Balfour copyright 2014.

Chadwick Boseman with Brian Grazer and Dan Aykroyd at the New York Press Conference for “Get On Up.” Photo by Brad Balfour copyright 2014.

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.

Chadwick Boseman stars as James Brown in "Get On Up."

Chadwick Boseman stars as James Brown in “Get On Up.”

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 Spencer stars in "Get On Up."

Octavia Spencer stars in “Get On Up.”

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.

Chadwick Boseman stars as James Brown in "Get On Up."

Chadwick Boseman stars as James Brown in “Get On Up.”

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%].

Viola Davis stars in "Get On Up."

Viola Davis stars in “Get On Up.”

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.

Chadwick Boseman stars as James Brown in "Get On Up."

Chadwick Boseman stars as James Brown in “Get On Up.”

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.”

Chadwick Boseman and Tate Taylor at the New York Press Conference for "Get On Up." Photo by Brad Balfour copyright 2014.

Chadwick Boseman and Tate Taylor at the New York Press Conference for “Get On Up.” Photo by Brad Balfour copyright 2014.

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 and Chadwick Boseman star in "Get On Up."

Jill Scott and Chadwick Boseman star in “Get On Up.”

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 t