NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI. If you greet biopics with a certain amount of trepidation, “Get On Up” director Tate Taylor is right there with you.
“I”ve never been a big fan of biopics,” the well-dressed helmer of “The Help” tells a pair of visiting reporters, pausing between shots in mid-December, more than eight months before the scheduled August 1, 2014 release date.
“The last one I really loved was 'Coal Miner”s Daughter.' I loved that,” Taylor continues.
“Coal Miner's Daughter,” which won an Oscar for Sissy Spacek, opened in 1980.
“For me I think what makes them successful is I approached this as, 'This is a movie about an amazing man. And, oh yeah, he”s James Brown.' That”s how I approached this, is who he was and what made him the man he was,” Taylor explains. “And what I honed in on, what I thought was special is you can usually do a movie about someone”s drive to succeed and how they got there but what I think”s interesting about James Brown, is he didn”t want to go backwards. And that”s a fear, I think, I have and a lot of people relate to. Everybody can relate to that and that”s what made me think it would be accessible for audiences regardless of the music, is that fear of, 'Oh my gosh, what if this all goes away?' Not, 'Oh, I”ve done enough and I can coast.' Some people, they don”t want it to go away. And that”s what I really wanted to focus in on what it takes to keep it where you are and then reinvent yourself over and over and over.”
One thing Taylor wants to make clear is that “Get On Up” isn't what he calls “a cradle-to-grave biopic,” though that doesn't mean he ignores Brown's later-in-life notoriety, as he starts with the singer's 1988 two-state automobile chase fleeing from authorities.
Taylor admits, “Well because a lot of people who aren”t huge James Brown fans only know of that or the latter years making cameos in 'Rocky' movies and, you know, or Eddie Murphy imitating him on 'SNL.' And so I didn”t want to focus on that. I wanted to go ahead and look that moment in the face. And when you see it the way it”s been written and filmed, you get why. You understand his day. So it”s not gratuitous. It”s like, “OK people, we know this happened so let”s just get that off the table.” And then slowly throughout the movie keep going back to that opening scene and opening day and understand how that day happened and why.”
[Sadly, this answer both anticipated and also cut-off-at-the-pass my ability to ask Taylor if “Get On Up” dedicates any time to James Brown's guilt at his role in the death of Apollo Creed.]
The day I'm on-set, “Get On Up” is recreating the seminal AIP concert film “T.A.M.I. Show.”
Although it's rarely acknowledged in discussions of classic concert documentaries, “T.A.M.I. Show” featured performances from many of the period's great acts, including The Beach Boys, The Miracles, The Supremes and a little British act called The Rolling Stones. The show is hailed as a coming out party for James Brown and The Famous Flames. Per music industry lore, Keith Richards and The Stones always lamented going on-stage after Brown because there was no way they could equal the energy of that earlier act.
Although “T.A.M.I.” show was filmed in Santa Monica, Taylor's commitment to his Mississippi roots has us at the Natchez Auditorium. [This bit of doubling is one of several major challenges for production designer Mark Ricker, who also has to turn a Natchez middle school theater into nothing less than The Apollo.]
Like dining at Jack Rabbit Slims, one of the highlights of the day's production schedule is attempting to identify the extras posing as musical royalty. I'm not sure if the woman with the big hair is supposed to be Lesley Gore, or if I'm projecting because I saw her name on a dressing room door. Those two preppy guys might be Jan and Dean, if you could recognize Jan and Dean. The young guy in the blazer with the mop-top, the blazer and the big lips is definitely Mick Jagger, which has an extra level of humor because Jagger's Jagged Films is one of the producers on “Get On Up.”
“T.A.M.I. Show” was famously filmed in HD precursor Electrovision and the production's bulky camera is in the center of the dance floor, with the much-less-cumbersome “Get On Up” cameras craning in from the back. James Brown and The Famous Flames are performing “Out of Sight” and it's depicted as one of those great musical moments where the crowd stars off excited, but by the time Brown has finished with his shimmying, shuffling, spinning and splits, they've been worked into a frenzy.
Clad in one of Brown's trademarked white-checked jackets and wearing what we've been told is one of the role's most understated hairpieces is Chadwick Boseman. Best known for playing Jackie Robinson in the sleeper hit “42,” Boseman has dispensed with all signs of the intentionally stiff, muscular physicality he brought to his baseball role. His Brown is a lithe whippet, sliding along the linoleum stage, boosting the crowd's energy and playing with the Flames. And The Flames aren't so bad themselves, including Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd. Attracting a little extra notice is Aakomon Jones, who is both a Flame and also the movie's choreographer, sporting crisp moves that almost inevitably attract the eye.
“For this particular number, we're not just referencing a song in a performance, it's a literal reference from an actual performance, 'T.A.M.I. Show,' right?” Jones says. “It's very accessible as far as online clips and DVD sales and all that stuff, so we wanted to stick to it as far as the visual aesthetic and the movement. But we also wanted to take it up a notch. We didn't want to carbon copy it, but we wanted the reference to be very clear, that we were recreating something that actually existed.”
He's correct. Between takes, I'm able to pull up the YouTube clips on my phone for a little compare-contrast.
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“I was trying to pull the most exciting parts, the most memorable and exciting parts that really spoke to James Brown & The Famous Flames outside of other acts at the time,” Jones says. “So if they're Mash Potatoing in a certain way, I wanna pull that. If they're doing a step for a long period of time, I'll try to pull from that, use that, so that you know that we're doing what they're doing. But for the things that really were kinda so-so, in my opinion of their performance, that's where we sprinkle in our own energy.”
Boseman isn't James Brown. Nobody is. But he's light on his feet and he's executing some signature moves with aplomb. After each take, Taylor asks if he wants to do another and Boseman keeps agreeing and nobody in the background bats an eye.
Taylor gushes, “[T]he dances are absolutely the dances. We took no liberties there. And Chad”s been working his ass off with Aakomon since July, even every day after filming. So he has got those down and that”s what”s really exciting.”
From crowd's building crescendo and the interplay between Brown and the Flames, you can see how the “T.A.M.I. Show” number will fit into the narrative of “Get On Up,” which isn't an accident.
“I can”t wait for people to say, 'Oh I bet they have a double.' And they”re gonna go, 'Oh s***. That”s it.' And then as far as the musical numbers, what I”ve made a big point of doing is I don”t want each concert number to be just another James Brown cool song,” Taylor says. “I say, crudely, I don”t want the audience to think they can go take a leak during the movie because, 'Oh, I know that song.' There”s so much story going on within each song. There”s drama with the bandmates and lovers and his demons in each song where if you go and leave because you know this song and this musical number and it”s not your favorite, you”re gonna miss story. So that”s been a big, big effort on my part there too.”
Between takes, the extras, worked into a frenzy just seconds earlier, are slumped against the wall waiting as both the actual camera and the retro camera featured in the scene, are pulled back. Hair is being slicked back into, poodle skirts are being straightened. Inauthentic bottles of water are slaking vocal chords ravaged by shrieks and squeals. Boseman, however, takes few pauses, as he goes over some of the more precise dance moves over and over. He's also singing “Out of Sight” and singing it well. In the movie, however, the main vocals will belong to James Brown.
“[I]t”s so iconic and we”re actually so blessed to have so many of the masters at our fingertips. A lot of times you don”t have that. But you know, it”s James Brown and you don”t want to mess with asking an audience to say, 'OK, you know what he sounds like but eh, we”re just gonna have our actor do it.' It doesn”t work. It could with some other genres of music like country and western, it totally could. Sissy Spacek sang her songs and you bought it, but this is James Brown and there are inflections in his voice, the calls and the calling out to people. You just – why recreate it when we have it?”
In my other set visit report posting this morning, Boseman talks about his initial uncertainty when it came to seeing himself as James Brown, Taylor insists he had no comparable hesitation.
“I could tell you it was exhaustively hard. It was not. When I cast, I cast on intuition so I don”t see a lot of people that I probably in my soul know won”t be the person. So I brought in probably about 15 or 20 people that I sought out that I thought could do it and Chad was just hands down. I mean I”m a Southerner and he”s a Southerner and when we”re from this part of the country, there”s an innate countryness to him that I knew I needed and we talked about it before he came in. And he said, 'Well, this is my grandfather.' He came in and he just did it.”
For “Get On Up” to succeed, audiences will have to agree. They'll be able to see for themselves on August 1, 2014.
Click to the next page for a few more highlights from director Tate Taylor and choreographer Aakomon Jones.
“GET ON UP” DIRECTOR TATE TAYLOR
Question: The other people you met with for James Brown, what was the quality that was hardest to find?
Tate Taylor: Just what I said. The regionality that is so needed. And I knew not only did I need that for the dialect of the actor but the way I work with actors, it”s very collaborative. We come up with ideas together and I needed somebody from my part of the country – Chad”s part of the country, James” part of the country — because that”s how you come up with colloquialisms and little gestures and things that we all know to be appropriate. And others may not know what it is but when they see it they go, 'That”s really Southern.' They don”t know why, but it is. So that was really important. That”s the same way I cast 'The Help.' It was the same mindset of “Get people from this part of the country.” Like Viola Davis was from South Carolina. So she knew these women.
Question: What led you to cast Craig Robinson as Maceo Parker?
Tate Taylor: Well Craig”s a musician. I think he”s a tremendous actor and I”ve always wanted to work with him. And he resembles Maceo and some parts of Maceo”s life but I think it”s always really interesting. Casting”s my favorite. To give a comedic actor a dramatic part – it”s just really interesting… Maceo was famously, would stand up to Mr. Brown. He was a big cut up and James often would fire him and then be like, “Dammit, he is the best, get him back.” So that”s being played out in this movie in some scenes where they”ve got to have each other. I don”t think either was particularly fond of the other but, hey, if he”s gonna be a perfectionist and have the best show on earth, sometimes you”ve got to…
Question: And we also understand there”s some breaking of the fourth wall that there”s some of James Brown addressing us. How are you using that structure?
Tate Taylor: Well my idea was that Mr. Brown was a part of this project the 17 years they”ve been trying to get it made. And it just hit me one day, the biggest control freak perfectionist in the world, I just don”t think he would let this go even from heaven. So the idea of coming in… and it also allows you to, breaking the fourth wall in a biopic, a lot of times you have to get out a lot of information through reporters or headlines and a montage. And it”s like, “Here”s your information people.” Or foreseeing where someone”s talking about his genius. And you're like, “They wouldn't have this conversation.” Then I thought, “But you know who would look you in the eye and tell you how damn great he was? Mr. Brown.” So it all came from there.
“GET ON UP” CHOREOGRAPHER AAKOMON JONES.
Question: Can you articulate what we're maybe not seeing with James Brown, the thing we see, but maybe we can't put into words?
Aakomon Jones: What we sometimes miss is how locked into the beat he is. What we sometimes miss is the communication between him and his musicians. So whereas he's dancing and he may hit a spin or hit a scream or stomp his feet or hit a slide, all those things not only are flashy and cool and it feels good to him because he's a dancer and as a performer, but those are communicating to the musicians when to hit this beat, when to stomp, when to hit an accent. He does different hand gestures that'll tell the drummer to hit a cymbal on-rhythm. So all that communication, I want people to understand that. You may not know that just watching James Brown dance fast-as-hell and hit splits and spins and all that stuff. There's a purpose to everything he does.
Question: What's the secret to doing the James Brown splits?
Aakomon Jones: It's hamstring stretches. It's understanding how not to just flop your body way on the floor. You can just get down there, but you have to also be able to get up, so it's understanding how to use what I like to call accelerators and breaks. Those are the muscles in your legs, being able to slow down just before you hit the floor and draw back up, using momentum to draw back up.
Question: And how are you feeling about the acting side of this?
Aakomon Jones: I'm having a ball. I'm having a ball. I feel like I should have been born in the '40s to be 20 in the '60s, I'm living the dream right now.
Question: Do any of the artists you've worked with today have the James Brown work ethic?
Aakomon Jones: If anyone did, in my experience, I'd say Usher. When he's interested in something, he'll work hard. You can't out-dance him. As far as stamina, I've seen him swim underwater doing laps underwater just to get his wind up to be able to sing and dance at the same time. That kid is crazy.
Question: When you watch James Brown yourself, what kind of things astound you?
Aakomon Jones: It's just his footwork. I sit there and I can study it and I can study it and I can decipher it, or think I'm deciphering it, and try it and work on it, but does some things that are just for him and him alone. We can try our best to try and emulate it, make you think that we're doing the same thing, but I know that no one can duplicate that.
Like I already said, “Get On Up” opens on August 1, 2014.