Get on Up opens this week at the UA East Hampton Cinema 6 at a special time, 8 p.m. on Thursday night, an indication that the much-anticipated James Brown biopic is getting special treatment. The advance word is strong and I am expecting Chadwick Boseman to give an electrifying, star-making performance as the very complicated “Godfather of Soul.” I haven’t seen the film yet, but on assignment for the Australian magazine FilmInk, I was really impressed when I saw the amazingly talented Boseman in action during a set visit to Nachez, Mississippi in December. That day, when director Tate Taylor was recreating the historic T.A.M.I. Show, I did brief, off-the-cuff video interviews with Taylor (The Help)–who is a Mississippi native–Boseman (42); Nelsan Ellis (True Blood), who plays singing star Bobby Byrd, Brown’s long-time friend and the creator of the Flames (later the Famous Flames); and Brown’s friend and collaborator Dan Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers, SNL), who plays famed agent Ben Bart. These are the edited transcripts of those videos.
Danny Peary: Why are you filming in Mississippi for a bio on James Brown, who was from Georgia?
Tate Taylor: Well, we’re in Mississippi because I’m recreating so many eras in James Brown’s life in Augusta, Georgia. Natchez, Mississippi is unique because of all the buildings and architecture that have been preserved here. You have row houses from the twenties, thirties, and forties, and you have sixties architecture. So we’re here because of that and also the authenticity of the extras and just the vibe of that southern world.
DP: And also probably because of your feelings for Mississippi?
TT: Absolutely, it is good to promote this industry in my state. That’s one of the main reasons we’re here, but truly when the South needs to be a character in a film I think there’s no better place than Mississippi. Selfish, very few previous films have shot here, so I’m the first.
DP: Assuming that you’re a fan of James Brown, when did you start becoming a fan?
TT: Absolutely I’m a fan. It’s really interesting that we have Dan Aykroyd in this film because one of my favorite movies of all time is The Blues Brothers and it really inspired me to get into this business. As a child I wondered, “Who is that man preaching and singing in the movie?” It was James Brown. So the spark had been lit back then, and then I was looking for a follow-up to The Help and I came across this project. Most bio pics are how did they get there? What I loved about this one is it shows how a man gets there and also shows what happens to someone when they don’t want to go backwards in life. James Brown kept reinventing himself and I think that’s a really inspirational thing for an audience to see.
DP: The Help is set in a specific time; Get on Up takes place over many decades but I think it also has to do with time, specific eras. Do you think James Brown’s personal life and career as they evolved reflected the changing America, particularly for a black man?
TT: I really don’t. The Help had covered those issues. For me in this, James Brown just did what he wanted to do and as a result became a hero and a voice for his generation. I think what’s interesting is that a lot of people seek that status, and try to do things so they will be put on a pedestal; whereas he just became that person naturally.
DP: Where does the TAMI Show fit into his career?
TT: The TAMI Show was the first time James Brown and the Famous Flames were ever photographed, historically speaking. We have nothing prior to that performance of how they appeared. The reason they were part of it was that they were trying to get out of the Chitlin’ Circuit trying to expose James Brown and their music to a whole new audience. That was the way they did it.
DP: In the scenes you’re shooting today, it’s clear that James Brown wants to end the show and not go on before the Rolling Stones. He ends up going on before them but he upstages them. Was James Brown always trying to prove himself?
TT: James flew out and really stole the show. [He wanted to expose himself more than prove himself] and as a result he got what he wanted—from then on he was in the mind set of mainstream white America.
DP: Talk about the casting of Chadwick Boswick as James Brown. Was it because of 42?
TT: As a director, I don’t care who’s done what or what’s on the resume. My motto is: cast with the idea that the best person wins the job. A lot of unknowns are in my movies because they were the best people for their parts. Chad came in and read for James Brown, and it was just hands-down his part. I contribute a lot of that to what we were talking about before. Chad is from Anderson, South Carolina. His dad and granddad are from a rural area. As Southerners, Chad and I both know that when you’re born and raised here, there’s this innate sense of how it should be in this part of the country. That gave me a lot of confidence in him, and he’s been a great collaborator.
DP: When you think of James Brown other than as a musician, do you think of him as a tragic figure at all, or a triumphant figure only, or something else?
TT: Well, I love that saying, “If you haven’t done anything bad there’s no reason to talk about you.” You can call it tragic, I call it living life. I think the unstoppable energy and work ethic is waning in the younger generations today. Often it’s none existent. So I hope people will watch James Brown’s story and see that if you really want to be successful and famous it takes more than a Facebook page or a tweet or a selfie. You gotta go do the work.
DP: So again you see James Brown as an inspirational figure.
Danny Peary: I loved you as Jackie Robinson in 42 and it was quite a relief to me that you did him justice. So when you play a real life figure like Robinson or James Brown and know people might get mad at you if you do it wrong, is that a burden, a challenge, or an opportunity?
Chadwick Boseman: There might be a few days where you see it as a burden, but once you’ve taken it on it’s too late to think that way. Then you’ve got to see it as a challenge and an opportunity.
DP: Would it be easier for you to play a person nobody heard of than an icon?
CB: Sure, and I love it when I get the chance. In fact, I filmed a movie called Draft Day, starring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner, and I play a totally made-up character. So I’m not stuck playing icons. He’s not a real person, but he will be once you see who he is.
DP: When I think of Jackie Robinson I think of the words defiant, courageous, and forward thinking. Do any of those words apply to James Brown?
CB: You know that James Brown created two phases in music, so that’s pretty forward thinking and pretty courageous. I would tend to say James Brown was fearless. There’s a legend that goes along with that. It’s almost mythical–the idea that he was stillborn and his aunt had to breathe life into him for him to come to. That’s one of the legends of James Brown. From reading and hearing from his family members that that he was dead at the beginning, I believe that his magical birth created a sense of fearlessness in him. So he walked through life fearless, ready to do anything.
DP: Do you think that if he didn’t have that birth, or his upbringing, or experience poverty, that his music would have been the same?
CB: Probably not. I would say that in songs like “There Was a Time,” he was clearly talking about seeing a beauty in this moment. There’s a sense of abandonment there, an out-in-the-woods abandonment, but he found some music in that and so I think to a certain degree the world is blessed because he went through what he went through as a kid.
DP: You don’t want to, or you just can’t, do interviews dressed as James Brown because I think when you look like him you try to channel him. So what do you think goes on in his head while you’re looking like him? He’s innovative as a musician obviously, but are there a lot of conflicting thoughts?
CB: I wouldn’t say that they’re necessarily conflicting. I think he’s single-minded in a way where he’s very sure about the things that he’s doing at all times. He may second-guess it in a moment of silence. He holds court with people, he’s a much more outward external person than I am. I wouldn’t want to do an interview as him. I think it would sort of take away from the performance and I don’t know if I could really answer a question about what I’m doing as him. We did play around on set when we were searching for the right shoes for me to wear.
DP: His song “Say It Out Loud” has the subtitle, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Did he think way his entire life and was that a driving theme for him?
CB: I would say no. From what I’ve read and heard people say, I’d guess that those exact words put together were not necessarily his philosophy the entire time. I would say that he found his own journey through this African, disparate experience. Growing up as a dark-skinned person, being a lead singer–you just have to imagine what gave him the confidence to do the things that he was doing. At the time when there were the Jackie Wilsons and the Sam Cookes, he didn’t stand down to any of them. He had a love for himself amidst people who might not see him that way. So he’s a very interesting character. I think that “I’m Black and I’m Proud” would connect him to a time period, a very political time when black people were beginning to have a different sense of identity. So he attached his philosophy to that.. But I would definitely not say that it was his exact philosophy that the entire time.
Danny Peary: Everybody involved with Get on Up wants the new generation to see James Brown. You want that to happen but I’m sure you also want recognition for Bobby Byrd.
Nelsan Ellis: Absolutely, absolutely, I think that Bobby Byrd has a powerful story in regards to James Brown. I hope that people gleam from this movie how James Brown became James Brown because there was a Bobby Byrd, and Bobby Byrd was Bobby Byrd because there was a James Brown.
DP: It is a shame that Bobby Byrd did not get into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame at the same time as James Brown, and not until several years after he died.
NE: It was in 2012 that he died and he deserved to be in there way earlier than that, certainly when he was alive.
DP: Did you know much about Bobby Byrd before playing him?
NE: Not at all.
DP: Which is a shame, because we should know, right?
NE: It is. I didn’t know there was a Bobby Byrd. I knew there was a James Brown and I knew he had a band, had I had no idea who Bobby Byrd was. Then during my research I was like, “Oh, I feel ashamed of myself.”
DP: I’ve seen videos of James Brown and Bobby Byrd performing together and James Brown is being James Brown and doing all kinds of spins and whatever, and Bobby Byrd is just singing normally. But when you watch them together do you see Bobby Byrd as a talent unto himself?
NE:. I see the big thing about Bobby Byrd is that he’s a supporter. Everything he’s doing is in support of James Brown. But yes he was a talent unto himself. He was a frontman for the Gospel Starlighters before James Brown ever came along. He’s the one who started the Flames. He was a talent, he had a hit record, he could sing. To my ear he and James sounded kind of alike.
DP: Would James Brown have had the same career he had if not for Bobby Byrd?
NE: Absolutely not. Well, no one can ever say something like that.
DP: Well, you can.
NE: Bobby Byrd is actually credited for discovering James Brown. It was Bobby Byrd who gave James Brown his first opportunity to be in a group, the Gospel Starlighters, and from there they took off.
DP: Bobby Byrd got him out of jail.
NE: He got him out of jail. He came and stayed with his family. I think that there are notable steps that Bobby Byrd was responsible for in James Brown’s life.
DP: In the movie, what is the trajectory of the relationship between the two men?
NE: As in any relationship that falls apart, you have your good times and then you have your bad times and sometimes it doesn’t work out. So you’ll see good and bad times and maybe it doesn’t work out and maybe it does.
DP: I don’t know if you would use the word loyal in regard to both of them in their relationship, but Bobby Byrd was the only Famous Flame who stuck with James Brown, all through the years while everybody else sort of faded away. Did James Brown feel the same towards Bobby Byrd? And was James Brown as protective of Bobby Byrd as Bobby Byrd was of James Brown?
NE: I would say that Bobby Byrd was definitely loyal to James Brown. But he was in a different position than James Brown so I don’t know if James Brown could feel the same.
DP: A different position?
NE: Bobby Byrd wasn’t the frontman, James Brown was. James Brown always stayed in touch with Bobby Byrd despite whatever falling outs they had, so while he couldn’t be as loyal he was committed to their relationship–if that means anything.
DP: You’re from Alabama and Bobby Byrd was from Georgia, so do you think you had an automatic connection to him because of that?
NE: I did. He grew up in the South, and came from a strong Christian family. I grew up in the South and came from a strong Christian family. So I automatically knew fifty percent of who this man was. The other fifty percent I had to figure out.
DP: What kind of satisfaction, gratification do you have being in this movie?
NE: I get to play a person who hasn’t been given the credit that he deserves. I’m the one who get to play that dude and ultimately the responsibility falls on me. I feel privileged to play Bobby Byrd.
Danny Peary: The longest time I’ve ever had between interviews of a particular person is with you. You’ve just set my new record, because I interviewed you with John Belushi years ago. I put down my recorder and John picked it up and put it in his pocket.
Dan Aykroyd: It might be in the box with him right now, I’m sure.
DP: I’m sure, too. But the reason I’m bringing it up, is that it’s interesting that Get on Up probably wouldn’t exist if Tate Taylor hadn’t seen you and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers.
DA: I understand that. I think Tate would have found his way into this profession without The Blues Brothers but if I can take partial credit for this brilliant young talent and his development and future, I will.
DP: His introduction to James Brown was in your movie.
DA: Right, and Tate told me that he also loved Raising Arizona. So he’s admiring an emulating some great filmmakers–John Landis and the Coen Brothers
DP: It’s fitting you’re in this movie because you had a strong relationship with James Brown, professionally and personally.
DA: I first saw James Brown perform at the Esquire Show Bar in Montreal in the late sixties, and then again at a club in Toronto in the early seventies. Subsequently I put him in The Blues Brothers, Doctor Detroit and The Blues Brothers 2000, so we worked together in three movies. We opened five House of Blues nightclubs across America. I got to sing with him, jam with him, hang with him. I went to his birthday in Augusta, Georgia one time and, you know, I think he would’ve considered me a good friend. I certainly loved him dearly and I miss him.
DP: Was he an easy guy or a hard guy to be friends with?
DA: Well, with me he was easy, I guess because he looked upon John and me as fellow artists. He accepted us and was appreciative of the re-energized focus The Blues Brothers provided for his career. Beyond that, I wasn’t a part of his inner personal life and he was maybe difficult to be with if he were your spouse or a family member. I wasn’t and I just got the best out of him, which was to be a fellow colleague as an artist and a friend.
DP: If you sat around with him, what would you talk to him about? Only music?
DA: We did talk about music, the old Blues, who his influences were in the beginning. Of course, he was brilliant and well-read so he could talk about anything—politics, the universe, space, quantum physics.
DP: Politics–he was a Republican, which many people don’t realize. It was funny that all of us in the counterculture admired James Brown, but all of a sudden we heard he was a supporter of Richard Nixon. Did you have a heard time dealing with that issue?
DA: No, it didn’t matter to me. I have many friends who are Republicans, and I think a little theoretical debate is very good. I think that just came out of the unconventional way he grew up. I think in a way he embraced conventionality and conservatism. He was a reverend, he had a very strong moral center and a strong faith in God, and I think that just went hand-in-hand with the conservative southern base where he grew up.
DP: In the many years you knew James Brown, did he ever talk about Ben Bart to you?
DA: No he never mentioned Ben Bart to me, maybe because I met James after Mr. Bart had died.
DP: From what you’ve learned, how important was Ben Bart to the career of James Brown?
DA: Well, Ben Bart was a classic Brooklyn operaserio. He had his company of Universal Attractions, he handled Etta James among other artists and many other players.
DP: They included Hank Ballard, who was a major influence on James Brown.
DA: Yep, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. I think what Ben Bart did was give James the keys to the business in a way, an understanding of the business that James was just beginning to acquire. And he enhanced that and it directed him to where James had a sense of independence and to where he could take control of his own enterprise. So Ben was instrumental in giving him that access to the understanding and the knowledge it would take to build a business, as he did.
DP: How gratifying is it to play this guy?
DA: Oh, I’m from the Peter Sellers-Catherine O’Hara school of performing so I like any role where I don’t talk like me and don’t look like me and don’t walk like me. I prefer to steep myself in whatever props and voices and accents that I can. So I’m loving playing him. I’m having a great time.