What's it like when Mick makes you his movie's leading man? The legendary rocker-turned-Hollywood producer and 'Get On Up' star Chadwick Boseman reveal what went on behind the scenes to bring James Brown back to life.
"It's good to be back," says Mick Jagger, sweeping a hand across the grand view in front of him at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem. The Rolling Stones frontman, who moonlights as an increasingly busy Hollywood producer, is here to discuss Universal's James Brown biopic Get On Up, two days before the film premieres at the same venue. It has been years since Jagger, who turns 71 on July 26, last visited the majestic Apollo. He can’t recall exactly when.
"I came a lot like in the ’80s, and then it was closed for repairs a lot," he says. It's clear that Jagger is feeling slightly nostalgic. "Over the years, I've been in and out of here quite a few times."
For Jagger, Get On Up -- directed by Tate Taylor of The Help and opening Aug. 1 -- proved to be a formidable journey, taking eight years to reach the big screen. The project has been around longer than that, though — at least 12 years. Producer Brian Grazer, fresh off a best picture Oscar win for A Beautiful Mind, signed a deal with Brown in 2002 to secure the Godfather of Soul's life rights. A parade of directors like Spike Lee and actors including Eddie Murphy and Chris Tucker floated in and out of the Brown orbit, with things becoming more complicated after the three-time Grammy-winning icon died in 2006, with his estate in disarray (a court battle between his widow and his children continues to this day, with the South Carolina Supreme Court saying the estate has an undetermined value between $5 million and more than $100 million).
Jagger began working on the project when Peter Afterman -- a music supervisor since the mid-'80s on films from The Big Easy to Juno who now runs the Brown estate — approached him about doing a documentary on the late singer. (Jagger wound up enlisting for both a narrative feature and an upcoming doc directed by Alex Gibney.) After all, Jagger and Brown are forever entwined in music history after appearing on the same bill for the 1964 concert film The T.A.M.I. Show — the Stones were top-billed, much to the dismay of Brown, who famously upstaged the young British rockers in a legendary 18-minute performance sequence. (Michael Jackson, among others, was obsessed with the footage.) Still, the two remained friends for decades, with Jagger conceding that he was greatly influenced by the singer.
The Apollo offers an apt setting for a conversation about Brown. Jagger first saw Brown perform here in the early '60s, seated next to a woman smoking "a big joint." (He didn't partake.) Seated now next to the film's star, Chadwick Boseman, and dressed in a brown fitted jacket, the slight Jagger never breaks a sweat despite the steamy summer temperatures of New York. The 32-year-old Boseman, by contrast, looks like he just played a game of pickup in the Harlem heat, muscles bulging beneath a black T-shirt and running pants. But they seem perfectly in sync when it comes to talking about Brown. They also discuss the challenges of re-creating the legend, where the film deviated from reality and why there's no heir to Mr. Dynamite.
Can you describe the first meeting you two had?
Chadwick Boseman: It was in L.A. in September . Mick had me over for tea.
Mick Jagger: We talked a lot. We talked generally about how it is to be a performer and more specifically about James. We put on [Brown's] Live at the Apollo album, which was a very big part of my early musical education. I asked Chad how he felt about [playing Brown] because it's a big ask to do this part. There's the nuance of the acting and the changes of age [Boseman plays Brown starting as a teenager and ending in his 60s].
What did you take away from that conversation?
Boseman: You [looking at Jagger] identified the points when James Brown was charming the crowd and directing the band, and sometimes he's teasing the audience with the moments where he’d step away from the microphone and sing. Then you can’t really hear him. There are all these [shifts] just to seduce everyone.
Jagger: That's what every good performer has. Any performer is one person privately and then he's another person when he steps on the stage. And James Brown, of course, was that. If you’re an actor playing this role, that's another layer in your interpretation.
How closely did the film’s T.A.M.I. Show sequence align with reality?
Jagger: A lot of poetic license was taken. It happened kind of like that, but not exactly. I would have liked to have done it as it actually happened, but we couldn't that do for various reasons, mostly due to money. The true part of it is James was very miffed about not being the top of the bill. In real life, they asked me to go and chill him out because I’d already met him and already talked to him. They thought I’d be a good person because they didn't want to do the dirty work. So, they asked me to try and go chill him out, which I did to a certain extent. But, of course, he wanted to show the real thing that we show in the film -- he wanted to go out there and kill, you know. And that probably made for a better performance than normal. He talked about that a lot afterwards and it meant a lot to him. And I think it was probably the first time that his entire show had been put down on film like that. That’s important for you as an artist.
Mick, you knew James Brown. What was he like as a person and artist?
Jagger: He was always so very nice to me, polite to me, respectful. Even when I was very young, he didn't treat me like I was a whippersnapper. He always was encouraging to me. I watched him a lot, and I think he inspired me and I learned a lot from him. Not like doing imitations but just learning his general attitudes and the way he worked. I'll always admire him for what he did.
Chadwick, unlike Mick, you didn't know James Brown. But what was your experience with him prior to this movie?
Boseman: I don't ever remember there not being a James Brown in my life. I was probably listening to James Brown in the crib [Boseman grew up in South Carolina]. My aunt listened to him. My mom and dad. There was always James Brown all day.
Do you think James Brown has an heir?
Jagger: Chad is. [laughs] But no, I don't think so. But this is another time, and things are different. There's lots of people obviously that are very influenced by him.
Boseman: The whole idea of the businessman and the artist. You see that in hip-hop now.
Jagger: I mean, you look at Jay Z, for instance, and Puff Daddy. They’re very much into that business thing. I was never that interested in business, to be honest. I do the minimal amount of business as possible because I’m not actually interested in it as a thing. But some people are interested in it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They want to make deals for the deal’s sake. James Brown was definitely a progenitor of that kind of businessman/performer. Before James there was a dearth of people from the African-American community who were entrepreneurs. You weren’t expected to be an entrepreneur. If you were an entertainer, you were just paid and were told what to do and where to go. And you just did it. He was one of the first people that said, “No. I want to take control.”
Chadwick, what was your background in singing and/or dancing prior to this?
Boseman: Minimal. I had done some hip-hop theater. That’s not really singing and dancing, but it incorporates some of those movements to tell a story. But performing and dancing like a professional? Not at all.
How did you prepare?
Boseman: We had AJ [choreographer Aakomon "AJ" Jones]. He was a drill sergeant. I just showed up every day and did what he told me to do.
Jagger: I've worked with AJ on a couple of music videos and some prep for shows and stuff. He’s a really good guy. Chad worked with him for a lot longer than me. A lot more hours than me.
How much did you help Chadwick prepare for the dancing?
Jagger: I didn’t do any of that. I let AJ do all that. I never said, "Oh, that wasn't right, because he did it that way." AJ and Chad worked so well and the results are so good. I didn't have to. You know, that wasn't my job to be nitpicking dance moves.
Boseman: AJ taught the vocabulary before we actually knew what songs we were using in the movie because I think that it took a whole month before we actually knew which ones [would be used].
How did you choose the songs?
Jagger: We wanted the songs to fit in with the narrative. There are a lot of songs to choose from. We kept changing the songs.
Mick, you have a well-documented fascination with African-American culture. Was James Brown your entry point?
Jagger: No, definitely not. When I was much younger, like 11 and 12 years old, we used to have people come to England and play, like blues singers Big Bill Broonzy and gospel singers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. My mother was very fond of these performers, too. She would say, "Sister Rosetta Tharpe's on the TV. Come and watch." That was my intro -- TV. When I was a little older, I used to be able to go and see these shows that came. Like there was The Caravans. There was folk blues, a group of 10, 12 performers, and they would play in London, and I would go and see them in the theater. I didn't come across James Brown until I was a little bit older because he didn't come [to London]. I was aware of his records, but I was more of a blues, a country blues person. But I liked everything, like Elvis and Buddy Holly. I liked country music, like George Jones.
There have been grumblings that this movie should have been directed by a black director. Thoughts?
Boseman: When I look at this situation, I ask, "Who could have done this with the amount of money that was the budget that we had?" I look at the work that Tate [Taylor] put into it. I look at how he fought for certain things and how he brought out who the man was. He developed a relationship with the family. I think there's no color in that. The people that are grumbling have no idea of the nuances of that and the details of this specific situation.
Jagger: I would hate to say as a non-African-American person that it would be wrong for a black person to direct white people in a movie. Wouldn't that be awful of me to say that? The only sympathizing thing I might say for people that want to [grumble] is that a filmmaker should have an understanding for the place where the people you're portraying are coming from. If I was going to make a movie about Korean people, it would be stupid of me just to make it with no understanding and sympathy. I agree with all that Chad says [about Taylor].
How involved was the family?
Boseman: They were involved every day. They read the scripts beforehand. They were asked their opinions about all the drafts of the shooting. We interviewed different people in the family, different sides of the family.
Chadwick, how did you deal with the huge age range you play, from a teenager to his 60s? Did you shoot linearly?
Boseman: No. Some days, I was 63 in the morning and 17 after lunch, and then 35.
Jagger: I would turn around and go, "Wait a minute. He looks different now."
Despite re-creating everything from the Apollo Theater to Vietnam, you kept the budget relatively low, at around $30 million. How were you able to do that?
Jagger: We shot it in 49 days. [laughs]
Boseman: We could have shot for a whole other month.
As a producer, how important would it be to win an Oscar? Is that something you care about?
Jagger: I think everyone in the movie industry wants to win an Oscar. I don't think that's why you make movies. But winning an Oscar is not just about making a great movie, unfortunately. It's also having a good Oscar campaign. It's not something to think about right this second.
How is the HBO rock'n'roll series going with Martin Scorsese?
Jagger: It's going well. I was down there last night on the set on Crosby Street. It looks really interesting. Some great shots we saw last night and some great camera movements and like some really amazing stuff. It should be amazing.
Mick, you have another biopic in the works with the Elvis story, Last Train to Memphis, at Fox 2000. What is its status?
Jagger: We've got a new script and it’s moving forward. But no actor yet.
Speaking of musical biopics, will there ever be a Stones one?
Jagger: Who knows? Who knows, my dear?