A younger generation only familiar with the later years of the late, great James Brown could be forgiven for characterising him exclusively as an eccentric musician who had constant trouble with drugs and the law. In fact, anyone in their 20s might be stumped to name any James Brown song other than ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ or ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine’. But to many he is the Godfather of Soul, and the details of his interesting and complex life are recreated, in full cry, by the brilliant Chadwick Boseman in the new biopic Get On Up.
Boseman is set to become a real heavyweight in Hollywood. He played Jackie Robinson in 42 to critical acclaim, and was recently been announced to play Black Panther in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
Perhaps understandably given his busy schedule, it’s a weary Boseman who greets me when we meet – the jet lag can be cruel, and I’m not the first person who’s interviewed him this morning. I decide to mix things up and start on a lighter note, pointing out that his surname must lend to a very obvious nickname. This draws a smile and a bit of a laugh. “Yeah, Boss-Man, my friends call me The Boss,” he says with the confidence of Bruce Wayne admitting he’s Batman.
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Get On Up, trailer
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With the ice firmly broken, we turn to the good stuff. Fresh from his depiction of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, we talk about the challenges and potential burdens of playing such iconic black historical and cultural figures; a genre that seems to be running neck and neck with the popularity of comic book movies these days. For example: Mandela, The Butler and 12 Years A Slave.
“I didn't really have much apprehension with playing Jackie Robinson because I fought for that role, I practised and got in shape for it. But once I got it, I did think, ‘Oh wow!’ I did have a bit of apprehension in playing James Brown though, because of playing Jackie Robinson. I didn’t want to be typecast as just the person who plays real people. The persona of James Brown is so intimidating – the incredible dancing, singing, the funk… the hair! Trying to capture all of that was what made it a bit intimidating.”
It’s an understandable sentiment, to be fair, as what made James Brown so great wasn’t just his music: it was his presence. The combination of that unflappable swagger, the raspy voice, the outrageous clothes and the hair… blimey, the hair. To truly bring this to life, Boseman would have had to recreate this to near perfection. The other aspects could be improvised but that voice is impossible to mistake and getting it right took practise – something that was no mean feat.
“It was a case of listening to him, over and over again, but not getting stuck in trying to do an impersonation of him. The trick is the placement of words. We also spent a lot of time in South Carolina and Georgia with his family, listening to how they speak and getting a feel for the slang and placement of words.”
To Boseman’s credit, he does an admirable job of getting the great man’s voice across. It’s not as spot on as the dialogue, but what he does absolutely nail is the dance moves.
“The choreographer, Aakomon Jones, taught the vocabulary and mapped out some of the performances and, by the end, we were mapping it out together. But at the beginning, I didn't know how to break down the footage of James Brown dancing. In fact, I wouldn’t even see the moves. So AJ was a big part of this movie and making it all work.”
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I had absolutely no reason to even try doing the splits before this movie. It was all for this movie…
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I can’t resist any longer. I have to ask about the splits. “I had absolutely no reason to even try doing the splits before this movie. It was all for this movie.” He’s laughing now. “There was a whole lot of failure before I managed to get it right. I can do it at home, but it’s not something you’re gonna see me do every day.”
The eccentricity of the dancing aside, Get On Up does have a serious edge to it. It details the hardships that Brown went through growing up, which in turn impacted the relationships he had as an adult. And it wasn’t always for the better. This movie does nothing to hide the fact that, while he was loved by his audience, Brown was no saint in his personal life. Details that were not common knowledge are certainly brought to light in this movie. Was Boseman was familiar with Brown’s life before taking up the movie?
“Honestly, just understanding the music and the origin of the funk made me a little bit more connected to him. As well as understanding how he related to his band members and his juvenile delinquent years. The boxing though was a revelation. I can now see it in his performances – the hand motions and the footwork. He has the sense of a fighter. But I would say the majority of what I know now, I didn't when I started.”
There is no doubt that Boseman is an incredible talent, and it seems likely that he’ll transcend acting. At the time of this mid-September interview, he’d just sold in a thriller movie pitch to Universal – details of which he wouldn’t elaborate on. However, he does have plans to do more than acting. “I think I’m just a storyteller. Not just as an actor, but also writing, producing and directing. I’m definitely not just an actor.”
And as for the Black Panther role? “There are rumours,” is all he’d say then. “Whether or not they’re true is another thing.” Given the numerous sources, and the fact that he listed Marvel regulars Robert Downey Jnr, Don Cheadle and Samuel L. Jackson as some of his favourite actors, it felt like he had definitely at least met with Marvel about the role.
We concluded the interview talking about music. Boseman is a fan of hip-hop, R&B and house, but draws the line at techno, claiming: “It wears on you.” His next big screen appearance is Gods Of Egypt, scheduled for release in 2016, and of course there’s also Captain America: Civil War later that year. There are busy times ahead for the Boss-Man, and no mistake.
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Words: Elijah Lawal
Get On Up is released on Friday November 21st, distributed by Universal.