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Q&A: Get on Up star Chadwick Boseman and director, Tate Taylor on James Brown

Before filming the new Godfather of Soul biopic, the director and star hit the road together

Last summer, before an inch of film was ever shot on the set in Mississippi, the actor who played Jackie Robinson in 42 met up with the director of The Help in Atlanta, they rented a car and road tripped it together to Augusta. Getting the most minute details of James Brown’s life right was a top priority for Get on Up director Tate Taylor and actor Chadwick Boseman, who plays The Godfather of Soul in the new biopic opening in theaters today. With the tsunami of lawsuits and arguments that swirled after the soul pioneer’s 2006 Christmas Day death in Atlanta, it probably didn’t hurt to have the support of the Brown estate either.

“Chad and I hit the James Brown trail,” Taylor told me last week while in Atlanta promoting the film. “We talked to managers, friends, the people in his life. We asked them to drive us around and show us things. [Brown’s second wife] DeDe Brown was with us. That’s how it should be. A lot of times, the reason the people making the biopic and the family and the estate don’t get along is simply because the family or the estate is ignored. This wasn’t just a gesture of respect for us. I wanted information and I wanted them to feel a part of it. They needed to meet the guy who was going to play James Brown. They needed to trust me. Once we got there, they heard my accent and realized I was from Mississippi. They met Chad and found out he’s from Anderson, S.C. [near where James Brown was born]. The next thing we knew, we were at a fish house, eating catfish together. There’s a comfort level that we have as Southerners together.”

The road trip continues this summer as the pair roll out the finished film in Atlanta, Brown’s hometown of Augusta and at The Apollo in New York. “I had been to the Apollo before to watch a friend perform,” said Boseman. “But I never thought I would ever be on the marquee or walk a red carpet there. To walk in and see photographs of the real James Brown and the history that comes along with all that? To now be a part of all that is pretty amazing.”

Get on Up reunites Taylor with The Help actresses Viola Davis, who plays the singer’s mother Susie Brown, and Octavia Spencer, who portrays Brown’s surrogate mother Aunt Honey. Davis and Boseman share one of the film’s most powerful scenes, when the woman who abandoned Brown as a child reappears backstage after his triumph at The Apollo. Getting the scene right was important to everyone. “I’m an actor’s director,” said Taylor. “That’s my background, that’s how I work. Before we ever shoot anything, I bring the actor or actors to my home and I make dinner. We break bread together and we have a frank conversation and we spitball ideas. I ask the actors, ‘Are we missing something from the scene that needs to be there?’ Then I rework it and rewrite it. We didn’t rehearse it much. That’s not how Viola works. But we all understood the intention and the power of the scene.”

The film neatly sidesteps the chronological trappings of most biopics. Like The Godfather of Soul himself on stage performing "Hot Pants," Get On Up constantly ricochets around, from the singer’s humble beginnings in 1933 South Carolina to the pivotal recording of the self-financed Live at the Apollo record in 1962 to Brown’s 1988 infamous PCP-fueled period when he was riding on rims, trying to out run the police who had just shot out his tires. Taylor achieves this by breaking the fourth wall and having the performer address the audience directly. “Who else would rise from the grave if he heard someone talking about him and interject himself?” Taylor explained with a laugh. “That was really my inspiration. The real genesis of it was asking myself: ‘How do avoid the typical biopic stuff, with the swirling headlines?’ I didn’t want to do that. James came to our rescue.”

For Boseman, the power that Brown possessed really hit him while shooting the concert sequence set at Boston Garden on the evening of April 5, 1968, the night after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. In an effort to keep folks at home and to avoid the rioting going on in other U.S. cities, the concert was broadcast live and re-aired late into the night.

“That night on live television, James Brown could have said, ‘Let’s riot,’” Boseman explained. “If he had allowed himself to become emotional that night and allowed his music to do that, he could have. That whole night centered on two things: ‘Was there actually going to be a riot?’ and ‘Who would start the riot?’ Was it going to be the police, because they were agitated by the kids? Or was it going to be the kids? Ultimately, the kids in the audience that night came to listen to James Brown. And he was wise enough and he respected Dr. King enough to live up to Dr. King’s philosophies. He was sensitive to the moment.” Added Taylor: “Out of all the scenes we shot, Chad had the most introspection with that sequence. He took it very, very seriously.”

For all his triumphs, Get on Up doesn’t gloss over Brown’s demons either. It was important for Boseman and Taylor to depict the singer as a human being. “I asked DeDe Brown for permission to include some of the violence she and James shared in their relationship,” Taylor told me. “She reluctantly said ‘Okay.’ I took it a step further. I told her, ‘I’m going to write this scene and I’ll send it to you. And you can say, ‘Change this, change that’ or tell me you don’t want it in the movie.’ I sent it to her and she said, ‘Yup, that’s it. Go ahead.’”

The Brown family flew out to Los Angeles three weeks ago to take in a preview of the finished film. “It wasn’t so much that I was afraid they might be mad about something,” Taylor explained. “I wanted them to be proud of him and of us. I wanted them to be able to say, ‘Wow, I’m glad it took this long to make and I’m glad it was with you.’ Getting their seal of approval was important. It let us know we did this right.”


 

Atlanta Must Reads for the Week: Coke's hefty problem, Nunn's memos, and ATL's "world-class" label

Plus the demolition of the Friendship Baptist Church and the Braves' upcoming departure

Claire Suddath in Bloomberg Businessweek on Coke's sales and health concerns
Newsflash: Sugary soda makes you fat. Plus, aspartame, the sweetener in diet soft drinks, is a scary, unknown abomination (or so says the Internet rumor mill). You probably didn’t need Claire Suddath of Bloomberg Businessweek to tell you that these facts, along with the explosion of drink options, has finally cut into Coca-Cola’s bottom line, but it’s always fascinating to get behind-the-soda-fountain glimpse of one of Atlanta’s most renowned and secretive institutions. One shocking takeaway: The company’s campaign of labeling bottles with common names of American teens is actually working:

In the last three months, sales of Coca-Cola have inched up 1 percent in North America.

More striking than any stat within the story is the illustration of a “big-boned” Coke bottle by Justin Metz on the cover.

Read: Coke Confronts Its Big Fat Problem

James Hohmann for Politico on the leaked Michelle Nunn memos
Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn got some unwanted headlines when a series of internal memos laying out strategy was leaked to the press. Politico’s James Hohmann had the best Cliff’s Notes on the embarrassment contained therein. Our favorites:

Targeting wealthy LGBTs: The campaign identifies an “opportunity” in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — noting that they have deep pockets. “Michelle’s positions on gay marriage and the [Human Rights Campaign] endorsement provide a huge opportunity for mobilizing this community and their substantial resources,” says the memo on affinity groups.

And

Getting out in front of negative media stories: "Getting research hits killed” is described as one of the key jobs of any campaign-communications team. Political reporters know that press secretaries sees their job as working the referee, but it’s something else to see this written on paper: “Part of the communications department’s job (in conjunction with research) is to leverage relationships and find the material to push back against negative research hits. Often we will have fair warning and can work to kill or muddy the story. Sometimes we will get little to no heads up and will be forced to publicly respond to the attack or story."

Oops.

Read: The Michelle Nunn memos: 10 key passages

Matt Garbett for Creative Loafing on Atlanta's "world-class" status
The scribes at Creative Loafing invited another guest contributor to point out inconvenient truths about the city. Contributor Matt Garbett writes, and effectively argues, that Atlanta is (gulp) “Not a world-class city.” For instance, the new Falcons stadium:

So we build a "world-class" stadium, learning nothing from the mistakes of the past, further disconnecting entire neighborhoods from the rest of the city, and doing nothing to reduce the sea of parking that prevents the neighborhoods from becoming vibrant. Any project that requires $30 million to mitigate the impact on surrounding neighborhoods is not creating a world-class city.

Read: Atlanta's not a world-class city

Mike Tierney for the New York Times on the demolition of Friendship Baptist church
Speaking of the new downtown stadium, the New York Times’ Mike Tierney offers a front-pew view of the last days of Friendship Baptist Church before it knelt to Arthur Blanks’ wrecking ball. In so doing, Tierney pokes at our city’s disregard for its past. He opens:

Proud of the racial harmony achieved in turbulent times, Atlanta has long promoted itself as the city too busy to hate. But it is also known for showing little love toward historical and significant old buildings — the city too busy to remember — with no hesitation to tear them down.

So it was perhaps not surprising that Friendship Baptist, the city’s oldest African-American Baptist church, founded by former slaves with help from whites and still thriving, found itself in the path of bulldozers that will raze the Georgia Dome as its replacement rises next door. The church is to be taken down, as early as Monday, 152 years after it was established.

Read: In Path of Falcons’ New Stadium, Atlanta Church Awaits Demolition

Thomas Lake for Sports Illustrated on the Braves move to Cobb County
While downtown residents are dealing with arrival of a new football stadium, in-towners are also starting to face the departure of its baseball team. Sports Illustrated writer (and Atlanta mag alum) Thomas Lake laments:

What will I say when (my son) asks me why the team moved? I could tell him Turner Field was too old, but that would be a lie. It opened for baseball just 17 years ago. The Braves claim it needs $150 million worth of improvements, but it still looks new, inside and out.

I could say the Braves did what the people of metro Atlanta wanted, but that would be pure speculation. Team officials made sure the public had no chance to sway their decision. They formed their plans in secret and announced them as if they’d been written in stone. “If it had leaked out,” team president John Schuerholz said, “this deal would not have gotten done.”

I could tell him part of the Braves’ argument against Turner Field is its supposed “lack of consistent mass-transit options,” but that would be disingenuous. You can reach the current stadium by train and an easy walk, as we do, or by train and a short ride on a shuttle bus, as many others do. The new stadium will open in a county where the MARTA line has never gone. In essence, the Braves are saying, “This river’s too shallow. Let’s move to the desert!”

Read: For Braves fans, move to Cobb County is major loss for Atlanta residents

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