“Mama!” This screamed word signifies an unforgettable scene in Get On Up where baby James Brown, at about 7 or 8-years-old, dressed in a tattered tee-shirt and oversized pants, stares at the woman not seen in years. “Mama! It’s me!”
The lady looks up, dressed in a fancy red hat tilted to the side, tight satin red dress hugging on curves. She snuggles up against a fire, arm-in-arm with a soldier.
“You know that little nigger?”
Waiting for an answer, the uniformed brother stares questionably at the lady by his side. She looks back at the boy, stunned, hesitant, in shock at the sound of a familiar little voice yelling a maternal title she’d given up years prior when walking away from an abusive husband and the child she bore. Pausing slightly, shivering beneath the spotlight glare of eyes from a quiet watchful crowd, the woman answers slowly with action. Shaking her head from side to side, denying reality with an uncomfortable smile, she avoids the brown sad eyes of the dirty looking boy, who runs from being rejected by the mother that's abandoned him again.
It’s scenes like these that are unforgettable in Get On Up. Emotional moments that make you want to hug a vulnerable baby, and snatch his heartfelt loneliness off the oversized screen. It’s scenes like these that make you briefly understand the unspoken motivations of a creative man who we all know through music as the Godfather of Soul. And as epic as he was, with countless funk fueled hits nodding heads across the globe that changed the scope of music as a whole. Personally, James Brown was a pained brother who only found life, love, and solace through music.
All of this knowledge, known after research, fostered fear in actor Chadwick Boseman. The kind that he’s regularly shared during ongoing interview rounds when promoting his starring lead in Get On Up. Repeating stories of how scared he was of taking on this oversized role, Boseman initially turned it down. But when challenged to swallow the nerves and embrace a God-sent opportunity, Boseman transformed. And like an impressionable baby, he soaked up all of Brown’s soiled childhood issues that gave birth to the narcissistic, controlling talent with a bruised soul.
“I had to try to get rid of James Brown. I had to… after we shot the movie. And that was a process,” said Boseman, during a New York Press event for Get On Up. “And I found that there’s some things that I would have to keep. I’m not gonna take all of them…”
At the Apollo Theater premiere for Get On Up, Chadwick is surrounded by family and friends from his childhood home – South Carolina – the same as James Brown. When the DJ blasts “I Got You (I Feel Good)” from party room speakers, guests dance. And Boseman, almost on cue, begins a trademark foot jerk. Sliding his feet from side to side he moves like practicing a JB stage routine. But seconds later he catches himself, stands still, and nods his head to the music.
Sitting on the couch of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon asks, “Every time you hear James Brown music is it hard for you not to do his moves?” “Yes, I have to close down,” Boseman answers smiling. “Close down James Brown inside me.”
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While Chadwick struggles to separate from the Godfather’s hypnotic tendencies, Jill Scott, who played Brown’s second wife DeeDee, has decided to take a few things with her. “My mother was in an abusive relationship early in her life and she took us away from that. So I understood why to leave. I couldn’t quite understand why to stay. And I’ve been able to learn some things about that particular kind of woman, the level of love some would easily say is foolishness, to stay with someone who is abusive to you,” says Scott, on portraying Brown’s battered yet loving wife. “But what I learned about DeeDee, is that there is a love that is greater and wider and more powerful than anything I yet understand in this life. And for that, I will always take that with me. Do I want to be in an abusive relationship? Of course not. But do I want to understand better as I go in this life. Absolutely. DeeDee still loves James.”
“You have to make sure you do the work to make sure you ground the person in reality so you aren’t building some sort caricature or your performance doesn’t run hollow,” says Oscar winning actress Octavia Spencer on the emotions of acting. In Get On Up, she plays brothel owner and Brown’s temporary maternal figure, Aunt Honey. “And you have to stay connected to the piece, you can’t play a character you’re judging in some way.”
Still, before filming, Chadwick continued to overthink. Unsure of his choice, the thoughts began to haunt him. “Even after taking the role, I had some apprehension about doing it. I was going to rehearsal every day. You meditate and you continue to pray on it. And I went to sleep one night, and he…” Chadwick’s voice trails off. “It was [James Brown’s] first appearance in my dreams. And he said…” Boseman puts on his Godfather soulful voice, “’You gon’ be good. But you not gon’ be good as me.’ And I woke up, like…” He stretches his eyes wide, lurching the body forward with a gasp and quick inhale of air. “One of my teachers always said, by the fourth week of rehearsal, you should start to have dreams. That was what he taught, it doesn’t necessarily always happen. But when it does happen, it’s a good thing.”
Chadwick Boseman’s performance in Get On Up is actually a miraculous thing. With glowing reviews from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal, and Oscar buzz among film connoisseurs, Boseman’s embodiment of Brown’s genius musical good and abusive abandoner bad, brings bravos and biopic balance. It emanates from a well done, moving film. One which shows the kind of undying perseverance and self-starting motivation needed to lift oneself up pass life’s momentary defeats and disrespectful punches to the gut that don’t want you to get on up. “I think I can take a bit of that away,” says Chadwick smiling, “And some other things that I won’t mention.”
Get On Up Hits Theaters August 1.