GET ON UP
About The Production
There Was a Time:
Roots of Get on Up
As befits "The Godfather of Soul," James Brown's first
musical home was one full of gospel. But before long, the
gospel group he joined as a teen was transformed by jazz and
blues in the juke joints of the "Chitlin' Circuit," and The Famous
Flames were born. The group's first hit single, "Please, Please,
Please," was released in 1956 but credited to "James Brown
with His Famous Flames." It turns out that no one had consulted
the Flames about their revised billing status, and they all quit.
James Brown kept moving forward, mesmerizing live
audiences with his signature music, moves
and sexual energy. An expressive, emotional
soul crooner of the highest order, he could
work a ballad-such as "Try Me" and "Lost
Someone"-or shift into foot-stompers
like "Out of Sight" and "Night Train." His
voice swooped and soared, screeched and
growled, and he'd pivot from tender to
dangerous in a heartbeat. He continued to
work with a quartet of revolving Famous
Flames as his backup singers (Bobby Byrd
returned in 1959), while cultivating a large
backing band with lots of horns, christened
the James Brown Orchestra.
He was a peacemaker at the Boston
Garden after Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr.'s assassination in April 1968 and
gave soul power a rallying cry with
the single "Say It Loud-I'm Black
and I'm Proud" later that year. In
February 1969, Look magazine put his
picture on its cover with the headline: "Is He the Most
Important Black Man in America?"
He was a dealmaker, too, and knew how to take care
of business. It didn't matter if something hadn't been
done before...or hadn't been done before by a black man.
As he refined his sound, churning and turning it inside
out, funk came into being, and another new era of music
swept the world. By 1970, The Famous Flames were
gone for good, but Byrd stayed, bassist William "Bootsy"
Collins and his brother, guitarist Phelps "Catfish" Collins,
came on board, and Brown had a new band, The J.B.'s.
When funk eventually yielded its throne to hip-hop,
Brown stayed relevant in a new way. His signature beats
were foundational to hip-hop artists, who have sampled
them frequently for years. The drum riff near the end of his
single "Funky Drummer" is one of the most sampled beats
of all time.
Like many of his generation, producer Brian Grazer
grew up listening to James Brown. "I loved his sound
and the beat and everything about him as a kid," Grazer
explains, "but never in my life did I think I'd end up
producing the James Brown movie."
It was the hip-hop community that inspired him. "In
the late '90s, while researching the movie that became
8 Mile, I came across many pivotal figures in the hiphop
world," recounts Grazer. "Chuck D, Dr. Dre, Slick
Rick, LL Cool J, all of Wu-Tang Clan-ODB, Ghostface
Killah-they all said they were influenced by James
Brown. What they said stayed with me, and I decided I
had to find a way to do a movie about this figure who
inspired so many."
Courting Brown for the film rights was a lengthy
process. When an agreement was finally reached, Grazer
commissioned several writers to work on a script. With
a final draft in hand from English playwrights Jez
Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, with a story by
the Butterworth brothers and Steven Baigelman, he was
ready to hire a director.
On December 23, 2006, James Brown fell ill
unexpectedly and died two days later, at the age of 73. His
death was marked with a funeral procession that traveled
through Harlem and ended at the Apollo Theater, where
he'd made history recording his self-financed "Live at the
Apollo" album in 1962.
The film rights that Grazer had worked so long to acquire
reverted to the James Brown Estate, and the biopic was at
a standstill. In time, the estate needed someone to oversee
those rights, and chose Peter Afterman to serve as its arbiter.
Afterman, who has also handled music licensing and visual
media for The Rolling Stones since 2009, believed that
Stones frontman Mick Jagger was just the man to reignite
the fire that was the James Brown story.
Jagger has, in his own right, changed
the landscape of music over the course
of the past half century. But that's only
half of his story. In addition to his work
producing features and television, the
storyteller had recently finished those
duties on two documentaries, Stones
in Exile and Crossfire Hurricane, and
was open to developing a new project
with his longtime Jagged Films partner,
The producer is the first to admit
that he deeply admired and grew to
marvel at his peer's insatiable drive,
remarking, "James Brown wanted to
be in the forefront musically. He was a
groovemaker and a tastemaker whose
grooves have become part of the hip-hop language. I
find his life endlessly fascinating and deeply moving,
and I was honored to be considered to become one of the
caretakers of it."
When Jagger was approached by Afterman about
producing a documentary on Brown-one ultimately
directed by Alex Gibney and previewed as a work in
progress at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival-he discussed
with Pearman that he was keen to explore the untold story
of a man he emulated and about whom he actually has
firsthand knowledge. Recalls Jagger: "Then I woke up in
the morning and I said, 'Well, that's great. But why don't
we do a feature film? I could do the documentary as well,
but can we do a feature?'"
Jagger learned that Grazer already had a script in play,
one written by the Butterworths, who had, in the interim,
received the Writers Guild of America West's 2011 Paul
Selvin Award for their screenplay for Fair Game. Once
he read a copy of the working script, Jagger reached out
to Grazer to find out if the producer wanted to partner
with one another and produce the biopic. Jagger recalls:
"I read the script by the two English brothers, and it was
very good. They're very highly respected playwrights."
After numerous conversations with Grazer's team,
Pearman and Afterman, Jagger could comprehend
why this biopic had been such a labor of love for those
involved and just how respectfully it should be treated.
To encapsulate the seven-plus decades of a man who is
arguably one of the most influential performers of the
last century was a Herculean task. "I saw what all the
problems were and how they could be surmounted with
Brian," Jagger explains. "We surmounted them, we re-did
the whole thing and got it back into production."
Grazer, still mourning the loss of the project so close
to his heart and soul, admits that he was stunned by
their initial phone conversation. He recollects: "To get
an incoming call from Mick Jagger, also a global icon
in the world of music, is like having an asteroid from
outer space land at your house. Mick said: 'I'd like to
do this with you.'"
With these two powerhouse producers aligned,
it was time for the Brown family to weigh in with
their unified wishes for the film that would serve
as an intimate look inside the world of the man they
called James Joseph Brown. "They read the script and
believed in what we're doing," says Grazer. "They are
aware that we're visiting some of the lows of James'
life but also celebrating him and his accomplishments.
They've been completely cooperative."
The time had come, again, to think about directors,
and this time, things moved faster than anticipated. Relays
producer Victoria Pearman: "We wanted the person most
compatible with the material naturally."
Imagine was already interested in director Tate Taylor
for another project, and the production company had
invited the Mississippi native to its office to discuss that
possibility. "We loved The Help," Grazer explains. "Tate
had made a difficult subject palatable and
beautiful, and it was very successful."
When that meeting ended, Taylor
was on his way to the elevator when
Imagine executive Anna Culp happened
to mention the James Brown script. "I
was leaving town that day and asked
to read it on the plane," Taylor recalls.
"Somewhere over Las Vegas, I turned to
my producing partner, John Norris, and
said, 'I know how to do this.'"
Taylor admits that he is fascinated
by stories of mastery and resilience,
embodied by the subject of the script he
was then reading. "James Brown was
not one to rest on his laurels," says the
director. "He had an endless need to move forward."
Imagine and Jagged's list-making ended the
moment Taylor called to express his interest from Sin
City. Finally, this long-gestating project could become
an ideal version of itself.
"Tate brings enthusiasm, sensibility and great
understanding of the character," says Jagger. "The way he
tells a story makes for a very dynamic film."
Grazer agrees with the assessment: "When Tate loves
something, he's unstoppable as an artist."
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