Tate Taylor has been a fan of James Brown even before he could drive. “In the South, he’s a legend, woven into our lives,” the filmmaker says. “He was dangerous, sexy, fun. He messed up, but who can say they haven’t messed up, too? He’s always been part of Southern culture.”
Considering that this marks his first project since the success of The Help, which was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture of the Year, Taylor was naturally selective about his follow-up. He offers: “There were a lot of jobs I could have taken, but I needed something I loved.”
There was also pressure to prove he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. “After getting some notoriety and success, I think James Brown had fear of it all going away,” Taylor reflects. “He didn’t want to go back to how it was before, and I can definitely relate to that.”
As he began the immersion phase of his new project, he had a realization. “You always hear what a control freak James Brown was, but it’s also true that he knew how things should be done and insisted on them being done right,” Taylor reasons. “One day, it hit me that he’s probably watching us make this film from wherever he is, and I started to wonder what his comments would be.”
From those musings, Taylor made a leap. “The script was unapologetic and had a lot of energy,” he says. “But I thought, if they’re willing to go this far, maybe we can take it even further. I wanted to break the fourth wall and let him speak directly to us: tell the truth from the screen, and let you make your own judgment.”
The idea excited Taylor for several reasons. “James Brown gets to give the audience the broad strokes of his life, the way he saw it,” he says. “And I’m free to break the rules—go from 1968 to 1933 and back to ’68 in about 10 minutes if I need to do it.”
Letting Brown engage with the audience also freed Taylor from tried-and-true biopic conventions, such as news montages and scrolls of text. He wanted something more dynamic and personal. Because James Brown was in the public eye for decades, as both a showman and a figure in the Civil Rights movement, Taylor was confident that he could capture his voice.
“After saving the city of Boston from riots the night after Dr. King was assassinated, and also recording ‘Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ he unexpectedly became the voice of Black America,” the director explains. “He went to Vietnam and met with soldiers; he went to the White House and met with presidents. He was recorded in interviews everywhere and was asked about everything. He even co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show for a year.”
Taylor crossed his fingers that producers Grazer, Jagger, Pearman and Imagine’s Erica Huggins, who’d been on the project since 2004, would go for his idea.
They did. “Merging Tate’s work with the Butterworths’ has given us a powerful, unorthodox and emotional film,” says Huggins.
Jagger adds: “Tate has a breadth of vision at developing the characters, the drama and all the explanation of why and how the moments of James’ life happen. I found his approach so refreshing. He opens the fourth wall and takes us on a journey that is so unexpected. I imagine that James would quite appreciate the sheer cheekiness of it.”
The Get on Up team would grow to include people who knew the man well, such as nephew DARREN GLENN, in the music department, and grandson JASON BROWN, a production assistant. Both men were on hand for reality checks, and also appear in the film. “Octavia Spencer is playing my grandmother,” says Glenn. “Viola Davis is playing my aunt. My dad’s a character, too [Big Junior], so everybody’s come to me to get a little piece of how they were. I’m happy to share because we want to get it right.”
Guitarist KEITH JENKINS, a member of James Brown’s band from 1994 until 2006, was a technical advisor for the drama’s musical performances and portrays himself in a concert scene. “Those of us who worked with James Brown always feel like he’s still around,” says Jenkins. “His spirit is here. Being on stage with him all those years, it was surreal to look at him, see the spotlight create that iconic silhouette—and realize I was there, too, standing with him. Now, working with Chad, seeing that same silhouette…it’s like being in the presence again.”
Taylor adds a caveat, admitting that he doesn’t want to overlook the darker periods of James Brown’s life: “No one’s trying to paint a picture of a perfect man here, because anyone who’s perfect is not going to be very entertaining. James Brown had a crazy life, and we want people to feel it.”