News Column

Chadwick Boseman gets on the good foot as James Brown in 'Get on Up'

July 31, 2014

By Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press

July 31--Chadwick Boseman laughs at the notion that screenings of "Get On Up," which features his electrifying performance as James Brown, should come equipped with a dance floor.

"You can actually get up and get into the aisle and dance if you want," he says of the biopic about the Godfather of Soul.

In fact, he says, one of director Tate Taylor's goals was that the audience would feel that way. "I suppose he should have put that in the opening credits, like, it's OK to dance."

The energetic drama, which opens this week, is a fitting tribute to Brown, also dubbed the hardest working man in show business. It breaks the rules of conventional film biographies by jumping back and forth in time and having brief moments where Boseman as Brown communicates directly to viewers.

It's also another triumph for the actor from South Carolina (the home state of Brown, coincidentally) who not so long ago was known mostly for a recurring part on ABC Family's "Lincoln Heights" and guest spots on series like "Detroit 1-8-7."

Then came "42," the 2013 film about Jackie Robinson's historic role in breaking the color barrier in baseball. Boseman made the sports icon come alive with an immediacy that soared above the rest of the movie. His reviews were so universally positive that stardom seemed assured.

But lightning usually doesn't strike twice, which provoked concern about his next assignment of transforming into Brown for "Get on Up." Would he be able to capture the explosive, expressive nature of the musical genius? Could anyone replicate such a unique personality without falling into the trap of impersonation?

Boseman comes so close that people on the movie's set addressed him as "Mr. Brown," the same term of respect that the singer expected of his associates in real life.

Staying in character between scenes is always an option for actors. But for Boseman, it was almost a necessity. "I just didn't have time because we were going so fast. It was a 49-day shoot, it was 96 locations, it was eight dance numbers. While I was working on one scene, my mind at some moments was already thinking ahead to the next one. I didn't really have time to stop."

Long road to the screen

"Get on Up" is the result of a lengthy effort to bring Brown's epic story to theaters. Producer Brian Grazer has credited his research for "8 Mile," where he heard of Brown's influence on hip-hop from rap royalty like Dr. Dre and LL Cool J, with inspiring him to pursue the project.

Grazer had permission in place and a script ready nearly a decade ago. But then Brown died unexpectedly in 2006 and the film rights went back to the legendary singer's estate. A business colleague of the Rolling Stones was chosen to look after the rights and wound up asking Mick Jagger to produce an upcoming documentary about Brown.

A huge fan of Brown who's portrayed in a "Get on Up" sequence about the 1964 concert film "The T.A.M.I. Show," Jagger saw the potential for a feature film and read the script for the Grazer project. The rest fell into place when Brown's family came on board with its hope for a movie that would show the man behind the mythos.

Director Taylor, who helmed 2011's "The Help," brought a shake-it-up approach that hopscotches throughout and portrays Brown as a heroic figure of music and civil rights without sugarcoating his sometimes cruel ambition or his suspicious, paranoid streak.

The film uses Brown's own voice and instrumentals from original recordings, with Craig Robinson ("The Office") and Tariq Trotter of the Roots among the actors playing his band members. The supporting cast includes Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who both worked with Taylor on "The Help," as Brown's mother and aunt, Lennie James (AMC's "Low Winter Sun") as his father and Nelsan Ellis (HBO's "True Blood) as devoted friend Bobby Byrd.

Boseman watched films of Brown onstage and traveled to Georgia with Taylor to meet Brown's relatives. He studied with choreographer Aakomon Jones, who also plays a backup singer in the movie, and put in five-hour rehearsals and weeks of practice to perfect moves like Brown's trademark splits.

Boseman dons a number of wigs and flamboyant period costumes to play the character over many decades. "I'm still owed one of the fur coats I haven't gotten yet," he jokes during a phone interview. And to simulate Brown's underbite, he wore a set of removable teeth.

But the real key to his interpretation of Brown was an understanding of how committed he was to giving everything he had during his concerts.

"When I watched (his) performances, I realized he'd perform two or three hours intensely. The only sort of break was him going into a ballad for two minutes, then starting right back up into something that was upbeat," says Boseman. "To me, when we first started, I was overwhelmed by that intensity and that drive."

Boseman wanted that intensity to be as authentic as possible, right down to the sweat that would drench Brown during a typical show.

"When we were on set filming a performance, I wanted that sweat to be there. I wanted to be performing constantly throughout so I had the real thing there. I think the only time maybe they would spray me was if we went to lunch and I came back or something like that and they gave me a new shirt," he says.

Boseman notes he saw something of his own grandfather in Brown. "You can think of him as an icon and you miss the basic human element that you can connect to, that I can connect to. I've watched my grandfather work in the garden, work on the roof, work on cars. ... (Brown) put that work ethic into his art."

Recent rumors are speculating that Boseman will appear in a Marvel film about the character Black Panther. His only comments on the buzz are playful. "In (the upcoming) 'Gods of Egypt,' I play a god, which is very much like a superhero," he says.

But he's serious about his career choices. "Honestly, I'm open to anything that is good. Somebody might say, 'You don't want to do any more biopics.' I'm definitely not looking for a biopic, but I'm looking for something that's good. That's what matters."

Contact Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or


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Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)

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