Authorized biopics of legendary musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain are stuck in various stages of development, but another music film long in gestation – dramatizing the bumpy life and times of James Brown – may finally be gearing up. Producer Brian Grazer, whose credits range from Apollo 13 and Rush to 8 Mile and Katy Perry: Part of Me, has been trying to make the movie since the late Nineties, when Spike Lee's name was initially attached as director.
According to Deanna Brown-Thomas, one of Brown's seven children, her father was intrigued but wary of any movie based on his life, especially since it would dramatize his troubled life and drug problems. "Daddy was hardly looking for anybody to do his life story," she says. "He was flattered, but it wasn't like he was super-excited about it. He wanted to make sure that these things that came out that weren't so great wouldn't look so bad."
After Brown's death in 2006, the project floundered, but it's back up and running now that most of the legal wrangling over Brown's property and finances has been worked out. Initially, Brown's children and his fourth wife, Tomi Rae Hynie Brown, contested Brown's will, which gave his fortune to a charity education fund for underprivileged children in Georgia and South Carolina. In 2009, the South Carolina attorney general arranged an agreement in which Brown's property, music rights and future earnings will be split among the charity foundation, his widow and his children, and almost all the subsequent lawsuits have been resolved.
With the rights to Brown's music now sewn up, Grazer and a new co-producer – none other than longtime Brown fan Mick Jagger – have revived the biopic. The film's original script, written by British playwrights and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, is being revised, and casting will soon begin. For the first time since the project was reinvigorated, Grazer talks about how he won, lost and regained the rights, Jagger's role, and the controversial recent decision to hire director Tate Taylor, director of The Help, instead of Lee.
Given how long you've been working on this, a James Brown biopic seems to be one of your dream projects.
I had the rights for a very long time, from about 12 years ago. I was really determined to do it for a variety of reasons. I had Al Sharpton as a consultant for a minute. I put a lot of effort into it and a substantial amount of my own money into it, $2 million. And when James Brown died, the rights became more complicated, and I lost them. I had already developed a great script by the Butterworths, but it all came unglued.
What did James Brown mean to you?
I like to make movies about mastery and genius, and it's hard to find great subjects. And James Brown is a visually dynamic subject. A Beautiful Mind was hard because we had to get you to understand how schizophrenia works. This will be much easier. On the most visceral level, he sings and dances, and the performance of that contributes to defining him as the hardest working man in showbiz. Dancing impacts audiences in another way.
You met with Brown himself a dozen years ago?
Yes. I'd meet with him periodically. I loved him. I think he liked me.
He was notoriously wary of the business. Did you have to win him over?
You always have to do a little bit. They have to believe in you, and they have to believe that what you will portray is something they'd be proud of. He wanted to work with someone who understood how he impacted music at the time and on the planet and saw him as a person who wasn't political but had a political impact. He recognized he had hard times. But I think he wanted someone who recognized and celebrated his accomplishments.
Was he up for including scenes like, for instance, his two-state car chase and arrest in 1988?
He seemed to be OK with all those things. It would encapsulate his whole life. You get a sense of how he grew up and how was beaten in a burlap sack as a child. So you get a sense of abandonment and abuse in how he grew up, which leads you into the young adult and his relationship with his band. Our focus would be when he was in late 30s, but we would capture the great high points and some of the really palpable low points of his life. We want to capture the string of amazing hits like "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and "Please, Please, Please." In our first draft, we had 30 performance pieces.
What has Jagger brought to the project so far?
Mick had a relationship with James Brown and studied him as an artist. He has strong opinions, but he's gentle. He's not like, "I don't like it." He would just say, "Let's rethink it" or "Let's not decide right now." But which is, "I don't like that." [Laughs]
Do you think you'd cast a pop star or an actor who can sing or dance?
We haven't made any decisions yet. We're going to start casting and we're going to have to test lots of actors and be determined to pick the right one. No movie starts in a day. I've never loved a subject and not made the movie. Friday Night Lights took 13 years. American Gangster took seven or eight.
What happened with Spike Lee, who was said to be directing the original movie project before Brown's death?
He was the choice when I had the rights. I had just produced Inside Man with him. When the rights left me, I didn't have any control, and I couldn't make director choices. So when it came later with new people and new rights holders, we weren't doing it with Spike Lee anymore. The world was different then. Now you have to make movies for less money.
When it was announced that Lee was no longer involved and that a white director, Tate Taylor, was on board, the blogosphere went nuts. How do you respond to those comments?
What would I say? I view that a bunch of different ways. Mick and I don't see the world that way. I started my career making Boomerang and CB4. I've made so many movies where I've supported black artists. Tate made The Help, and that had almost an entirely black population. I just want to try to make the best movie.
Were you surprised by those reactions?
Well, I didn't read them! I can't make movies like that, where I'm going to look at some blog and change the course of the whole movie. I also think Mick is so amazing. For him to decide he's going to participate and split half the money – he's a man of integrity, and I feel pretty good about that.