From the vocal inflections of a soulful voice that was unmatched, to electrifying dance moves, stunning audience interaction, and a theatrical flair for the dramatic, James Brown’s influence is apparent to every student of American music. With the upcoming biopic Get On Up, old fans of James Brown and younger ones alike will get a chance to immerse themselves in the contagious funk and emotional story of the Godfather of Soul.
“I met Mr. Brown about 16 years ago. I’ve met a lot of interesting people on the journey, and I thought it would be interesting to make a movie about James Brown. I transitioned from that point to convincing James Brown that I should do his life story, that I should make it into a movie," said executive producer Brian Grazer, during a press event at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at Columbus Square in New York with Get On Up star Chadwick Boseman, and co-stars Jill Scott, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, executive producer Mick Jagger, and director Tate Taylor. “I owned the rights for about 12 years and within those 12 years I kept having to renew those rights with James Brown directly, hire screenwriters and, once upon a time, a different director. It was a tedious and arduous process. When James Brown died I lost the rights because the rights became even further complicated. A year later Mick and I, we knew each other for years prior, had the opportunity to read the script and he ended up with the rights and we eventually decided we would do it together. It was a fantastic process.”
Born May 3, 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina, James Brown became one of the greatest performers the world has ever known. His career ran the better part of six decades and has influenced every American performer after him in one since or another. The soul simply would not be the same without all the significant elements that were developed and mastered by James Brown. But the new film on his life, isn’t the first time Brown hit the big screen.
The real James Brown amassed a formidable filmography that featured such fan favorites as The Phynx (1970), The Blues Brothers (1980) and The Blues Brothers 2000 (1998), Doctor Detroit (1983), Soulmates (1997) and Undercover Brother (2002). Brown was also featured in over a dozen documentaries and concert films as well.
Get On Up executive producer Mick Jagger is a legend in his own right for the work he has done with the rock and roll band The Rolling Stones. A likeness of Jagger appears in a Get On Up scene recalling the moment when Brown upstaged the Rolling Stones during a performance on the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964. Jagger says he was fan of James as early as 1958.
“I was asked by a business associate and friend if I would make a documentary about James Brown,” said Jagger. “I said ‘Let me think about that’. Then he said ‘Let’s do a theme show.’ I thought that was a wonderful idea. Problem is there already was a theme show. There’s never been a feature about it. Then I learned of the script. That’s the short version how I got involved. In Hollywood terms, from beginning to the August 1st opening of the movie has been a relatively short time to get it done.”
Born of humble beginnings and raised on the streets, James Brown would experience more before 22 than most people twice his age. He was a boxer, street hustler, hood performer, gospel singer, janitor, and petty criminal by 20-years-old. Such a deeply talented yet troubled man that the world may never see the likes of again, Brown’s wide range of interests and hardships have endeared him to millions the world over. Always struck by the need to give back to the African American community, he was known to politic with the likes of H. Rap Brown, activist James Meredith, and other black rights advocates in the 1960s and 1970s. Brown is credited with preventing a riot in Boston, MA following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. simply by performing the night of his murder. Sadly, James would later say he lost a significant portion of his crossover audience when he released “Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
“I remember living on 22nd and Lehigh Ave [in Philly] and someone was playing ‘I’m Black and I’m proud,” says Jill Scott, who plays Brown’s wife Dee-Dee Jenkins in Get on Up. “I can’t remember how old I was, but I’m pretty sure I was in elementary school, and I remember he was at the stop light and the music was blaring and I remember something in me stood up a little higher. I puffed my chest out listening to that song. That was the first James Brown feeling that I really remember.”
“Mine was the same, actually,” adds Chadwick Boseman, who impeccably portrays the Godfather of Soul in Get On Up. “I always remember James Brown as being part of the soundtrack of my life. If I had to pick one song it would be ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud.'”
“For me, the question doesn’t just bring up one song. It brings up a memory. My mother, she was a single mom and she loved James Brown. He was on her record player a lot as a child and it shaped me,” says Get On Up director, Tate Taylor. “When we started filming the movie she loaned me all of her James Brown records and I had forgotten that she used to play them. They had her maiden name with her dorm room in college and it said ‘Please return to this room.’ It just made me think about her challenges, and James’ challenges, and it was kind of cool that she listened to that music.”
We recall James Brown as the Godfather of Soul as he singlehandedly laid down the foundation for an entire genre of Black music funk. From Parliament to Bootsy Collins – who played bass guitar for Brown – Afrika Bambaataa, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Average White Band and scores of other groups, James Brown’s influences are without measure. Lest we forget that Michael Jackson once cited Brown as his inspiration as a child.
On paper it’s easy to see why he was a musical icon. The accolades piled up throughout his career and until his death on December 25, 2006. In 2005, his seminal double album Sex Machine was ranked 96th in a survey of the top 100 songs in history by British TV station Channel 4. Four James Brown albums were named among Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the top 500 greatest albums of all time; Live at the Apollo (1963) was ranked 25th, In the Jungle Groove (1986) came in at 330, Star Time (1991) was 79th and 20 All-Time Greatest Hits! (1991) was 414th overall. An amazing stage performer, calculated concert promoter, skilled dancer without peer, an a genius without measure, James Brown’s legacy marches on in all who remember his music and loved what he stood for.
“People from all different back grounds and all different ages know him. People say he’s the most sampled pre-hip hop artists and blah, blah, blah,” said Jagger. “He is all those things, but his actual recordings are still being played to get people on the dance floor in various forms or another. All these different people from all over the world, from different countries and different groups, and different cultures, they all sort of know him. I’ve been on tours and we’ve actually played James Brown songs, they all know that music. They play those numbers. It’s all part of your musical history. If you want to be a musician, this is all part of the canon. You have to know this or else you’re not complete. For musicians and dancers alike, he’s made these huge and lasting contribution which goes on. I think this movie, hopefully, does his legacy justice.”
It does. Get On Up is an honest look at James Brown’s rise from extreme poverty to an international icon. Showing his shining glory and ghastly ugliness, the film never sugar coats drug abuse, philandering ways, and a hair-trigger temper that led to spousal abuse. Highlighting positive points that balance out his dark blemishes, Get On Up is a finely done biopic that stands as a testament to the human spirit.
Get On Up opens in theaters on August 1st.