GET ON UP
I Got the Feelin': James Brown's Moves
To play James Brown, an actor must move with
both control and abandon. His sinewy stage moves gave
physical form to the beat that drives his music, but his
hand gestures also served a practical purpose. "He was
like a human baton," says executive producer Afterman.
"He was telling his musicians what to do next, like
an orchestra conductor."
Jagger's first encounter with Brown was when he
caught his full show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and
he admits that the physicality and energy he witnessed
made him a lifelong fan of Brown. "I went to see him a
lot of times in different places in that part of my career,"
Jagger says. "He was an amazing frontman, and if that's
your gig, you're going to want to see the very best."
Jagger was equally transfixed by Brown's physical
presence as he was his vocals. "I watched him do the
splits, and thought, 'Well, I'm not doing that,' but I'm not
ashamed to say I borrowed other moves. He was brilliant.
The best mover, amazing voice and amazing grooves. It
all really knocked you out."
Indeed, Jagger and Brown actually worked together
during filming of the legendary T.A.M.I. Show ("Teen
Age Music International") in Santa Monica, California, a
concert reproduced in Get on Up. A cult classic, the 1964
film starred the Stones and James Brown-along with
Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry, The Supremes, The Beach
Boys, Lesley Gore and others-and included an audience
of screaming, rabid fans echoing the energy that radiated
from that once-in-a-lifetime stage.
Brown's incendiary 18-minute set during the T.A.M.I.
Show was the first time white American teens felt
"Mr. Dynamite's" heat. As Octavia Spencer, the woman
who would become the film's Aunt Honey, notes,
"Hel-lo! Dirty dancing has come to town!"
Keith Jenkins, a 12-year veteran
of Brown's band, was on set to help
Boseman learn those moves and
grooves-ones seen and attempted
to duplicate by countless fans over
the decades. "Over the span of James
Brown's lifetime, the dances he did
changed," says the musician. "You
can't just learn a couple moves and be
done with it. Chad's commitment was
mind-blowing. In between every take,
he was practicing."
Aakomon Jones had discovered that
a few months earlier, when he was hired
to prepare Boseman, first for his screen
test and then for filming. "Chadwick had
rhythm and could dance, but nowhere
near the degree he needed to pull this
off," says the choreographer. "But he's grown faster than
anyone I've worked with before. At first, we'd do two-hour
rehearsals, like a boot camp, but we beefed up the
hours right away and tried to go as hard as we could."
The results impressed everyone on set. "What he's
done is quite an achievement," says Jagger. "He's not a
guy off Broadway. He worked his butt off, and it comes
across. He really makes it live for you."
Huggins adds: "We knew as producers, and certainly
Tate saw as the director, that this role is about the
performance. We knew Chad would nail that. What he's
also been able to do as a dancer is amazing."
Boseman and Jones trained for a month in Los Angeles
before shifting their regimen to Natchez, Mississippi,
where the Get on Up production was based. Already fit and
athletic-he'd played Jackie Robinson, after all-the actor
was surprised at how hard dancers work. Boseman recalls:
"I said, 'Five-hour rehearsals?' The dancers said, 'We do
eight hours a lot of times.' We built up to that, and it was
intense. But you know, in the beginning, I could only do the
mashed potato in slick shoes. Eventually, I could do it in
sneakers because my legs got so much stronger."
Boseman's portrayal begins at age 16 and ends around
63. Brown's music, moves and overall body language
changed many times over those years, and Boseman had
to layer those changes into his performance.
Boseman also had to master Brown's signature
splits...and bounce back up. But that wasn't the hardest
part of the job. "To dance like him is much more difficult
than you realize," Boseman says. "The parts of your body
are moving in different directions, and he's never still at
the mic. He's always moving. But there's something about
his music that takes you to a different place in yourself.
You reach a point where you want to let it drive you."
The choreographer made sure Boseman could drive
wherever he needed to go. "I didn't want to marry him
to choreography in the beginning," Jones explains.
"I wanted to give him the ability to have freedom in
Jones had studied Brown's moves long enough to
know the importance of freedom. "I didn't have to look at
anything I hadn't seen before to do this film because that's
how big a James Brown fan I've always been," says the
choreographer. "I just went further into the how and why,
as opposed to the what. It's about the feeling, and where
you're coming from, to be able to move that way.
"You may look at Chad and say that little piece looks
very Prince or Michael Jackson or Lenny Kravitz," he
continues. "Or even Mick Jagger. But all those things
you're seeing come from James Brown."
Of course, Jones had more than Boseman's moves
to worry about. All of The Famous Flames had to be
spot-on, as did the dozens of other artists who appear in
Jones portrays Famous Flame Bobby Bennett dancing
at the Apollo gig, the T.A.M.I.
Show and Ski Party tapings
and the nonspecific concert
featuring "It's a Man's Man's
Man's World." Assistant
WIGGINS danced the role of
Famous Flame "Baby" Lloyd
Stallworth alongside Jones,
which meant just two Flames
in these scenes-the actors
playing Brown and Byrd-
were not professional dancers.
Jones was determined to
make sure no one would know
the difference. Commends
Taylor: "Aakomon Jones is
the unsung hero of this movie."
Jones thought the casting of Nelsan Ellis as Bobby
Byrd was perfect. "Bobby Byrd wasn't sliding across
the stage, going crazy like James Brown," he notes. "He
had that cool groove that's similar to Nelsan himself: a
supersmooth, suave, tinted sunglasses, French leather
jacket kind of vibe."
Supercool or not, it was still demanding for Ellis.
"I used to have pretty feet," he joked, "but not anymore.
Now they look like dancers' feet."
Ellis worked hard with Jones and Wiggins, always
game for one last rehearsal on set before takes. He also had
his own coach for extra training. "Certainly in the club, I
have a little rhythm," he says. "But I quickly learned that I
needed help when it comes to choreography."
The film's biggest concert sequence is a three-song
extravaganza-"Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,"
"Super Bad" and "Soul Power"-from the 1971 Olympia
theater concert in Paris. By choosing to set this peak
moment in France, Taylor made a point about Brown. "I
thought it says so much about him, that a man from Georgia
and South Carolina, born in a shack in the woods, would go
on to command sold-out shows in Paris," he lauds.
For Jones, the Olympia show meant a lot of moving
parts, but he downplays the daunting challenge: "The
horn players are doing their steps, the dancers have their
moves, the background singers have theirs. James Brown,
Bobby Byrd, The J.B.'s, the conductor-they're all doing
their thing. I knew the scope would be big, but I've dealt
with large numbers of people on stage before. It's just a
matter of giving everyone their part to play and making
sure it all goes together."
As for pleasing his director, Jones was happy to meet
that bar. "Tate loves dance, and knows what he wants:
the raw and the real."
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