NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI. If you greet biopics with a certain amount of trepidation, "Get On Up" director Tate Taylor is right there with you.
"I’ve never been a big fan of biopics," the well-dressed helmer of "The Help" tells a pair of visiting reporters, pausing between shots in mid-December, more than eight months before the scheduled August 1, 2014 release date.
"The last one I really loved was 'Coal Miner’s Daughter.' I loved that," Taylor continues.
"Coal Miner's Daughter," which won an Oscar for Sissy Spacek, opened in 1980.
"For me I think what makes them successful is I approached this as, 'This is a movie about an amazing man. And, oh yeah, he’s James Brown.' That’s how I approached this, is who he was and what made him the man he was," Taylor explains. "And what I honed in on, what I thought was special is you can usually do a movie about someone’s drive to succeed and how they got there but what I think’s interesting about James Brown, is he didn’t want to go backwards. And that’s a fear, I think, I have and a lot of people relate to. Everybody can relate to that and that’s what made me think it would be accessible for audiences regardless of the music, is that fear of, 'Oh my gosh, what if this all goes away?' Not, 'Oh, I’ve done enough and I can coast.' Some people, they don’t want it to go away. And that’s what I really wanted to focus in on what it takes to keep it where you are and then reinvent yourself over and over and over."
One thing Taylor wants to make clear is that "Get On Up" isn't what he calls "a cradle-to-grave biopic," though that doesn't mean he ignores Brown's later-in-life notoriety, as he starts with the singer's 1988 two-state automobile chase fleeing from authorities.
Taylor admits, "Well because a lot of people who aren’t huge James Brown fans only know of that or the latter years making cameos in 'Rocky' movies and, you know, or Eddie Murphy imitating him on 'SNL.' And so I didn’t want to focus on that. I wanted to go ahead and look that moment in the face. And when you see it the way it’s been written and filmed, you get why. You understand his day. So it’s not gratuitous. It’s like, "OK people, we know this happened so let’s just get that off the table." And then slowly throughout the movie keep going back to that opening scene and opening day and understand how that day happened and why."
[Sadly, this answer both anticipated and also cut-off-at-the-pass my ability to ask Taylor if "Get On Up" dedicates any time to James Brown's guilt at his role in the death of Apollo Creed.]
The day I'm on-set, "Get On Up" is recreating the seminal AIP concert film "T.A.M.I. Show."
Although it's rarely acknowledged in discussions of classic concert documentaries, "T.A.M.I. Show" featured performances from many of the period's great acts, including The Beach Boys, The Miracles, The Supremes and a little British act called The Rolling Stones. The show is hailed as a coming out party for James Brown and The Famous Flames. Per music industry lore, Keith Richards and The Stones always lamented going on-stage after Brown because there was no way they could equal the energy of that earlier act.
Although "T.A.M.I." show was filmed in Santa Monica, Taylor's commitment to his Mississippi roots has us at the Natchez Auditorium. [This bit of doubling is one of several major challenges for production designer Mark Ricker, who also has to turn a Natchez middle school theater into nothing less than The Apollo.]
Like dining at Jack Rabbit Slims, one of the highlights of the day's production schedule is attempting to identify the extras posing as musical royalty. I'm not sure if the woman with the big hair is supposed to be Lesley Gore, or if I'm projecting because I saw her name on a dressing room door. Those two preppy guys might be Jan and Dean, if you could recognize Jan and Dean. The young guy in the blazer with the mop-top, the blazer and the big lips is definitely Mick Jagger, which has an extra level of humor because Jagger's Jagged Films is one of the producers on "Get On Up."
"T.A.M.I. Show" was famously filmed in HD precursor Electrovision and the production's bulky camera is in the center of the dance floor, with the much-less-cumbersome "Get On Up" cameras craning in from the back. James Brown and The Famous Flames are performing "Out of Sight" and it's depicted as one of those great musical moments where the crowd stars off excited, but by the time Brown has finished with his shimmying, shuffling, spinning and splits, they've been worked into a frenzy.
Clad in one of Brown's trademarked white-checked jackets and wearing what we've been told is one of the role's most understated hairpieces is Chadwick Boseman. Best known for playing Jackie Robinson in the sleeper hit "42," Boseman has dispensed with all signs of the intentionally stiff, muscular physicality he brought to his baseball role. His Brown is a lithe whippet, sliding along the linoleum stage, boosting the crowd's energy and playing with the Flames. And The Flames aren't so bad themselves, including Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd. Attracting a little extra notice is Aakomon Jones, who is both a Flame and also the movie's choreographer, sporting crisp moves that almost inevitably attract the eye.
"For this particular number, we're not just referencing a song in a performance, it's a literal reference from an actual performance, 'T.A.M.I. Show,' right?" Jones says. "It's very accessible as far as online clips and DVD sales and all that stuff, so we wanted to stick to it as far as the visual aesthetic and the movement. But we also wanted to take it up a notch. We didn't want to carbon copy it, but we wanted the reference to be very clear, that we were recreating something that actually existed."
He's correct. Between takes, I'm able to pull up the YouTube clips on my phone for a little compare-contrast.
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