On the second-to-last day of filming for the upcoming James Brown biopic, Get On Up, Chadwick Boseman, resplendent in a mustard-colored mock turtleneck, dark vest and dark pants, slides across the stage of the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, Mississippi, spins around, punches the air with the microphone stand to punctuate the horn line from Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’,” then dips back toward the band to sing, “Baby, baby, baby/baby, baby, baby.” Today, the Coliseum is a stand-in for Boston Garden, and Boseman is playing Brown during a famous 1968 show, the night after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. A few yards away, the film’s director, Tate Taylor, and two producers, Mick Jagger and Brian Grazer, stand, arms folded, staring at video monitors, taking it all in.
“It’s a really hard role to do,” Jagger says, an hour later, during a break in filming. “It would’ve been safer to take someone from Broadway who had a lot of dancing and singing background. Chad would be the first to tell you, he wasn’t a dancer. But after he’d worked for six weeks on it, he immeasurably had become the character.”
Jagger would know. Although, he says he and Brown weren’t close friends when the soul legend was alive (Brown died in 2006), he spent plenty of time with him in backstage dressing rooms and concert halls, studying and absorbing his stage demeanor, his dynamic with his band and, of course, his dance moves. “The way he interacted with the audience, the timing, I was taking it all in and trying to understand the whole picture of it,” Jagger says.
Boseman, who earned plaudits for his portrayal of baseball great Jackie Robinson in 42, initially wasn’t interested in becoming the Godfather of Soul.
“I felt like I shouldn’t play another icon, I shouldn’t do another biopic,” he says. “And the singing and the dancing — I can hold a tune and I’ll dance if I go to the club, but doing this is a whole other level. James Brown influenced hip-hop, he influenced Michael Jackson and Prince. It’s sort of the foundation for a lot of things we’re still doing.”
Taylor was convinced, though, that Boseman, who grew up in Anderson, South Carolina, not far from Brown’s hometown of Augusta, Georgia, was the guy for the job.
“I wanted someone with the red soil of that part of the country in their veins,” says Taylor, a Mississippi native who had previously directed the surprise 2011 Oscar-winner, The Help. “When I heard Chad was from Anderson, I could not believe it. He’s protective of the men of the South, and said, ‘We cannot mess this up! I don’t know if I can do it right!’ And I was like, ‘I’m with you! Just come on!’ And he came in and killed it.”
The film, which Grazer has been trying to get made since the Nineties, will follow Brown’s story from his hardscrabble childhood all the way through his tempestuous later years. In addition to all the physical demands of the role, Boseman has had to walk a fine line between inhabiting the character and simply impersonating him.
“You’re not acting if you’re doing an impression,” he says. “That’s the total opposite of what you want to do. It’s a real person and you have that pressure of trying to find the spirit of that person without imitating them.” Today’s filming, he says, was demanding but nowhere near the toughest he’s had.
“There was one day that was like 15 hours of dancing, take after take after take after take. I counted up and I think I did 90 splits.
“So it’s been fun,” he continues, smiling, “but I’m also ready for this to stop.”