Get On Up: Biopic of James Brown, Godfather of Soul

As befits “The Godfather of Soul,” James Brown’s first musical home was gospel.  But 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 hip-hop 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, Victoria Pearman.

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 about whom he emulated and 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 the 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.”