The new James Brown biopic Get On Up, starring Chadwick Boseman, is premiering in theaters this weekend. Boseman had previously starred as Jackie Robinson in 2013′s 42, is playing the prestigious part of the godfather of soul. The movie is produced by Brian Gazer, who is well known for his work on 8 Mile, Apollo 13 and American Gangster. Co-produced by Mick Jagger, the film’s co-stars include Nelsan Ellis, Lennie James, Tika Sumpter, Jill Scott and Dan Aykroyd, and is one of American Blues Scene’s “6 Music Movies that we’re Excited to see in 2014“.
“I think studying him, studying how he performed and how he ran his band and ran his business and his personal life, they all kind of coincide as them being his conductor,” Bosemen recently told Elwood Blues, where he describes having to fill the big, fast, shiny shoes.
“I’d seen him do this on a performance on Soul Train where he throws the microphone down, pulls it back like a fishing rod, pulls the cord back, does a split and the mike lands on his shoulder and he comes back up with the microphone!” says Boseman about studying Brown’s moves.
“When I saw him do that, I said I’ll never be able to do that! I’ll never be able to do that, ain’t no way in the world I can do that… You can end up with a black eye if you don’t do it right!”
But during filming, after what he describes as grueling eight hour days, at the minimum, of dancing and choreography practice, “I got so hyped from the crowd being there and the whole thing, I just all of the sudden tried it and it was perfect, and I started doing it every take and it was perfect every time and I’d never been able to do that!”
During his preparation for the part, Boseman even got a touch of supernatural help. “In a dream, James Brown said, ‘you’re gonna be good, but you an’t gonna be as good as me.’ ”
Hear the interviews below, and see the full transcript of the talk below that!
Chadwick Boseman on What He Learned about James Brown
Chadwick Boseman on The Spirit of James Brown
And Finally, Elwood Blues speaks with James Brown himself about his distinctive rhythm
Elwood:So, first of all thank you so much for joining us in the Bluesmobile.
Bozeman: Oh man it’s so good to be here, man! Thank you!
Chad, you grew up in South Carolina, what was the music like around the house when you were growing up?
Yeah, you know, around the house my parents basically played gospel and R&B, so you know it was every day, old stuff like Isley Brothers, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, like they played they played a lot of old music and I think it made me like a lot of old music as well. Donny Hathaway, some James Brown but my aunts… One of my aunts loved James Brown, so yeah, so it was a little bit of everything. But you know we were like hip hop, R&B uh jazz, my brother was a dancer so he actually listened to everything um so it was a lot of music around the house.
Great! Now you have a long history of being involved with hip hop… How did that influence your understanding of Mr. Brown?
Well for me, I was familiar with a lot of his music being sampled in hip-hop music. I mean its kind of a fun thing to try to figure out when you hear songs, “where did this come from?”, “what was used in this and used in that?”, and if you just go through a lot of a lot of the 90s hip hop music and even 80s, you’re gonna hear a lot of James Brown in there, like old school hip hop.
And even now, it’s still being sampled so I think that would be one thing that helped in the process, because sometimes in our dance rehearsals we would actually play Nas or we’ll play hip hop artists’ versions of certain beats or certain songs just to like mix it up a little bit. And I think that also helped me to sort of bridge the gap between the time period.
I think you know as far as just the skill set you know actually doing James Brown’s movements is much different than doing hip hop movements, but hip hop has definitely stole or has, you know, extended some of the language um that he started. So I think that helped me in certain moments where the choreographer would be showing something and I could at least say oh that’s kinda like this or that’s kinda like that. And yeah its like that but its actually harder or its like that, its like its like that but he’s doing it way faster. Its like that but you know, its it helped me to reference some things so I could bridge the gap between Mr. Brown and what I might have already been familiar with.
I was wondering what you had to do to prepare yourself dance-wise. I mean, he was a legendary dancer, a legendary showman, hardest working man in show business for heaven’s sakes. How did you how do you prepare to do those moves and to dance like that?
You just have to throw yourself into it! I mean, the thing about it is, you know we had, we had a really great choreographer/coach. he was a coach, he was beyond just like, “learn these five steps, so lets see, five, six, seven eight”, it was it wasn’t like that. It was it was a introduction to a language that in certain moments he might give me a step to help me to find something but then he also let me be moved by a moment in certain cases, and let there be some improvisation.
And so it was a beautiful thing to just sort of throw yourself into that vocabulary every single day, um cause we officially rehearsed five days a week, we started at three hours, got up to five hours. And at one point we got to eight hours, uh.
Oh my God.
But and when I complained about the eight, I was like, “are we really gonna go eight hours?”, you know AJ was like, “that’s what dancers always do, that’s what we always do on a given day when we’re working with an artist”. Like if you have a musical artist that is very much dance oriented like an Usher or Chris Brown, these are people that he’s worked with before, Usher, you know they’re working on stuff for eight hours while they’re doing a video or something or, or preparing for an awards show or a concert. So he was like, “that’s what’s normal” and once he said that, you know I was like “oh, okay, so I have to I have to get up to that standard at least if I’m gonna if I’m gonna play this character.”
So I it was just a matter of throwing yourself into that world that dance world and um sweating and coming home sore.
So you must have some great moves now huh?
Yeah! Yeah, I mean like if I was out and you know the music comes on, I have some things to pull from that I didn’t have before, absolutely, absolutely.
That’s great … what did you learn about James Brown in making the film that maybe you didn’t know before?
Well a whole lot of things! You know, one thing is just that his crosses from his life to his music is just this desire to to keep everybody on their toes. He was a master in some ways, just a master conductor and manipulator.
So he constantly changed what he was doing. In other words, lets say it was a performance. You know people wouldn’t necessarily know what the song list was for that night until right then, until right when they were about to go on stage. And he would also change that list in the middle of performing, through a hand signal or a head signal or something he might do with his leg or something. So there was this there was this whole thing of, “I’m trying to constantly keep you on your toes” but also reinventing himself, and so when you watch the live concerts you’re seeing him, he may start performing like “Try Me”, go into “Can’t Stand It”, then go into “Cold Sweat”, go into “I Got You”, and come back to “Can’t Stand It”. It’s because he, he signaled that, you know what I’m saying?
And that was just part, it made his performances always unique and um and it made his band like attentive to him in a way that most bands wouldn’t be. But he also sorta did that in life too. Like he would keep people on their toes in a similar way, so just that I think studying him, studying how he performed and how he ran his band and ran his business and his personal life, they all coincide as him being this conductor.
So sir what was your first exposure to James Brown, very first exposure to him?
It’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t know James Brown! I mean it might have been hearing one of my aunt’s play his music. But I feel like I always the guy, like he’s always been part of the culture that I’ve known. Because I just remember hearing hip hop songs going, “yeah that’s James Brown right there”, they just they used that, is that okay for them to do that? Like is it okay, is it okay in having to, sort of, you know… beginning to understand how that works. So I don’t ever remember not knowing who he was to be honest with you.
… did you ever see him live?
No. No that would have been crazy. I would have loved to have seen him live. Especially, it would mean so much now if I had been able to see him live, but no I didn’t have that experience.
What was it about him that really connected to you?
I think there is a competitive spirit that he has that I think I had that as well. You know, I think I’ve always retained that whether it be athletics or art, there’s a thing in me that wants to win and I think there’s that aspect to him aspect that I feel like I know exactly who that is and what that is.
Like he talks about boxing, he talks about baseball and ya know he even talks about basketball, but I was like,. “James Brown could play basketball.” But when he talks about it, he’s the best player, he’s the best boxer you know, he could have been the best boxer in the world if he kept going, if he kept going or he could have been a pitcher or he could have been ya know he coulda ya know uh batted with both hands, he could have been a switch hitter you know. Its like that competitive spirit is something that I also have.
Now I wouldn’t say that I have his same audacity at times, and super confidence. Those are things that it was fun to play that because it’s not normally what I would do. And I think that was one of the fun things on set, its like once I stepped into it every day, I kinda would like stay in it even when we weren’t filming and so everybody bought into that, everybody on set seemed to buy into that idea of, Mr. Brown’s elite super power, whatever it is. Confidence. And it was just fun to be able to walk around like that for a little while.
James Brown was a symbol of black pride and liberation. How important was it in that respect …
I was blessed to grow up in a time where a lot of change has been made, you know what I’m saying? Its not its not perfect, its still not perfect in terms of race and in terms of advancement for African Americans, but you also had parents and teachers that sort of instilled the ideas that Mr. Brown was talking about in me. And used those used his songs to do it. So I remember you know hearing “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and being taught like why the song was made and who James Brown was and like just having a whole lesson about that.
That, that definitely did something to me in terms of just giving me all the confidence in the world and knowing that I could step into any arena and succeed so I think his music was literally a lesson for me. It was someone’s lesson plan that was taught to me and I think um that extended again into some of the hip hop movement and their groups that actually carried on some of those ideas that I used to listen to that my brothers made sure that I knew, and that I still every once in a while can pull up a Public Enemy song and listen to it so, and they used tons of James Brown, like tons of James Brown.
Mr. Brown was very spiritual, he used to say, “I’m a reverend yo”. Did you ever feel at any time that his spirit came alive within you?
Yeah I do! I’ll tell you two instances that are very clear to me. There was one there was one moment in the Olympia scene where I throw the microphone, I had seen him do this in a performance on Soul Train where he, he throws the microphone down uh pulls it back like a fishing rod with pulls the cord back and pulls the mike down, does a split um and the mike lands on his shoulder and he comes up with the microphone, right? And I was like, when I saw him do that, “I’ll never be able to do that right, I’ll never, I’ll never be able to do that. Ain’t no way in the world I could do that.”
But every day once we started working on mike tricks, I would like try it a little bit and then I would always fail, you know when that mike is coming back to you, you get hit in the mouth, its like coming back fast! Like get hit in the mouth and the head. You could end up with a black eye if you don’t do it right. So I’ll always have some kind of catastrophe trying to do that trick and it would be something I would do after the day was over, like after we finished rehearsing or whatever.
And so the night before we were doing the Olympia, I tried it and I still couldn’t do it, right. The night before. Well we got into the Olympia scene and all of a sudden like we had been doing it, cause we did a lot of takes, I think we did 50 takes of that Olympia scene just because its such a big number with all of the dancers and the band, like, it’s huge, it felt like a real performance even for the extras that we had there as crowd. Well I got so hyped from the crowd being there and the whole thing I just all of a sudden tried it, and it wasn’t like what we had planned, it wasn’t like this, the camera wasn’t necessarily ready to catch it, and I tried that thing and it was perfect. And all of a sudden I started doing it every take and it was perfect every time! I had never been able to do that before!
And the choreographer that came up and he didn’t even say anything cause that’s just how he is. He didn’t say anything to me and I said after like three times of me doing it I said, “are you watching this, are you seeing!?” He said, “yeah brother, I don’t wanna say nothing” and he looked up and he looked back at me and just walked away, because we both knew that I was beyond me. So that’s one time.
The actually the first time this happened previous to this was when I started working on it. I had probably been going to dance rehearsal for two weeks and I was still sorta like, “I don’t know how I’m gonna do this”, I’d go to bed with it, you know I’d be I’d have a little anxiety when I was going to sleep and then I remember waking up in the middle of the night from a dream and in the dream, James Brown said, “you’re gonna be good, but you ain’t gonna be good as me, right?” And I and I woke up and took a breath and that was the first time I started speaking like I speak in the movie. So seriously!
Yeah it was it as very interesting it was very interesting, um so yeah that’s, that’s it, that’s my two versions.
James Brown had an exhilarating and complicated life, a legacy of timeless music. You had to play a magnificent artist and a flawed man, and you did it so well, Mr. Bozeman. We gotta get going, get up, get on up, thank you very much sir, thank you.
Thank you man, thank you for having me man.