‘Get On Up’: The James Brown story that tugs at your heart and soul

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The story of soul legend James Brown is being brought to the big screen in vivid detail and impassioned storytelling via the new movie Get On Up. The Godfather of Soul is one of American music’s most revered and influential icons, but beyond his musical legacy; this film tells the story of a conflicted-but-driven man from Augusta, Georgia, fighting to make something of himself and make the world his. With a story this compelling, all involved must have the same fervor for telling James Brown’s story as the man himself had for recording and performing; and the stars of the film and producer Mick Jagger all spoke about what this project meant to them and why this story needed to be told. For star Chadwick Boseman, the idea of stepping into Brown’s platform shoes was initially terrifying.

“The entire thing was a challenge,” Boseman admits with a chuckle. “When I looked at the role, the reason I was scared of it was [because] there was no part of it that was straightforward or easy or ‘You’ve done that before.’ A lot of people will say ‘You’re from South Carolina,’ but he’s from the low country South Carolina. It’s not the same thing. And I’ve spent quite a bit of time out of South Carolina.

“We went down to Augusta … and I stayed down there a little bit longer, just driving around and seeing family and soaking up as much as I could before we started,” Boseman adds. “Sixty percent of my fear was the dancing, 40 percent was just the caricatures that have been projected of him and trying to get past what people think they know.”

One way that Boseman connected with Brown during filming was through the legendary artist’s music, and he had an assist from another legendary artist. Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger served as co-producer on Get On Up and was very hands-on during the making of this film, and introduced the lead actor to one of Brown’s lesser known songs; the live version of “Lost Someone” from Brown’s classic album, Live At the Apollo.

“I had that song on repeat for days and days,” Boseman recalls. “Just listening to it. 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.”

Boseman admits that once shooting wrapped, he struggled to remove Brown from his psyche — but he took away a lasting lesson about stardom.

“He always felt like you should have to pay to see him,” says Boseman. “If you saw him after a show, he would get his hair done again before he came out. He felt like you should always see James Brown. He didn’t put a cap on or try to get out before people could catch [him.] He wanted you to have that experience of seeing him in all of his glory. There’s something to be said for that.”

And Boseman had nothing but high praise for his co-stars, particularly Nelsan Ellis, who plays Brown’s best friend and foil, Bobby Byrd; as well as Dan Aykroyd, who plays Ben Bart, Brown’s longtime manager.

“This was my first time working with either of them, and Nelsan, I’ve been a fan of his for years, watched him on ‘True Blood’ and in roles in movies; so I already knew it was going to be a great chemistry,” Boseman explains. “He seemed like he works from a place that is subtle and truthful, and I felt like once we got into the dance rehearsals, there was a camaraderie because we both were feeling similar pain. We went through hell together! So we had that in common.

“And Dan Aykroyd is a legend,” he adds. “It was just a pleasure to have him on this movie, because of the enthusiasm he brought to it and because he knew James Brown.”

Jill Scott
Actress-singer Jill Scott gives a memorable performance as Brown’s voluptuous second wife, Deidre “DeeDee” Jenkins. In playing Jenkins, Scott taps into both a tortured vulnerability and a smoldering sex appeal, and she spoke about how much playing Deedee taught her about love — and about the conflict in being in an abusive relationship with someone that you care for so deeply.

“I’m a voyeur,” Scott shares. “I really enjoy watching people and getting to know people’s idiosyncrasies and all that.

“My mother was in an abusive relationship early in our life and she took us away from that,” the Philadelphia native explained. “So I understood why to leave; I couldn’t quite understand why to stay. I’ve been able to learn some things about that particular kind of woman — the level of love. Some would easily say it’s foolishness to stay with someone who’s abusive to you, but what I’ve learned about DeeDee is that there is a love that’s greater and wider and more powerful than anything I yet understand in this life. I will always take that with me.”

The vivacious singer has been through her fair share of heartache, and while she’s never dealt with abuse, she does want to get to a better understanding of devotion and love.

“Do I want to be in an abusive relationship? Of course not! But do I want to understand better as I go on in this life? Absolutely. And DeeDee still loves James,” she adds with a smile. “I think I do, too.”

As far as Brown’s music, Scott has never forgotten the first time the Godfather of Soul’s music impacted her as a youngster.

“I remember being on 22nd and Lehigh Avenue and someone was playing ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud,’” Scott recalled. “I’m pretty sure I was in elementary school, but I remember this guy at the stoplight and the music was blaring and something in me stood up a little higher. I puffed my chest out hearing that song. That was my first James Brown feeling that I truly remember.”

Mick Jagger
The legendary frontman for the Rolling Stones has a long history and affection for the Godfather of Soul. The biopic’s producer, Mick Jagger, shares how he became involved with the film and why he wanted to tell the story of the icon.

“I was asked by a business associate and a friend if I would make a documentary about James Brown and I said ‘Let me think about that,’ ” Jagger explained. “But I woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s do a feature!’ ”

Jagger acknowledged how influential Brown was on him as a young performer. Though Jagger’s trademark strut isn’t exactly reminiscent of Brown’s legendary moves, the Stone explained that it was Brown’s approach that left the deepest impression.

“He influenced me a lot — amongst other people. I could never do the dance routines like James Brown and I never spent the time and effort,” Jagger says with a laugh. “I didn’t want to be an imitator. [But] it was how to interact with an audience — that was the most important thing. James was all about interacting with the audience. It’s not just about your performance, it’s about their performance, too. The interplay is what it’s all about.

“The whole Live At the Apollo album was my real introduction to James Brown. I loved every tune on it — I knew them all backwards and the instrumental segues and stuff. I’d never actually seen James perform, but I imagined the whole thing in my head.

“I think this is a bit more than a generic biopic, really,” Jagger explained. “It stands out a bit more. A movie is a good movie. Either you’re compelled by a movie or you’re not. I find telling this story of adversity [and] of how he’s almost obsessed with making himself into somebody — that’s the story of the movie. And the price he has to pay for that. There’s always a price to pay for this single-minded drive to be somebody. You pay for that in some way and I think this movie shows the price you pay for it.”

One of the most infamous moments in ’60s music is the legendary James Brown performance from “The T.AM.I. Show” in 1964. Brown was livid that he wasn’t closing the show — the producers had decided that the Rolling Stones would be the final act. Jagger spoke about his memories of that show.

“It was a very exciting show,” Jagger recalled. “There were so many people on the show that I was meeting for the first time — I’d never met Marvin Gaye before. I’d seen James Brown before at the Apollo. And the experience [on "The T.A.M.I. Show”] was that James was a bit annoyed about not being last on the show. As I was the only one that had met him before, the producers of the show [m[made]e the fall guy! I was 20 or something and they’re all telling me, ‘You go talk to him!’ and you go, ‘Sure.’ But it played out and it was what it was. He did this amazing performance and we went on after. In the end, we had to work harder and he worked harder and it was a better show because of it.”

Stereo Williams
Stereo Williams

Todd "Stereo" Williams, entertainment writer based in New York City. He co-founded Thirty 2 Oh 1 Productions, an indie film company.

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