Getting Get On Up to the screen was a drama in itself.
Producer Brian Grazer, who grew up loving James Brown's music, got the notion for the movie in the late '90s while working on another movie about music, 8 Mile.
"I met James Brown several times, went to several of his concerts, and I ended getting the rights from James Brown to his life story," Grazer says. "And I had several different writers work on this script. I was prepared to make the movie, and James Brown dies." It was Christmas Day, 2006. The film rights reverted to the James Brown estate.
Mick Jagger was able to obtain rights to Brown's music, and a friend asked if he would like to work on a documentary. Jagger came back with the idea of doing a James Brown feature as well, not knowing about Grazer's dejection. Research turned up the rather unconventional, non-linear script written for Grazer by English playwrights Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth.
Mick Jagger, also a global icon in the world of music, is like having an asteroid from outer space land at your house," he says — and the project was back on track.
"This is the longest time I've had to bring a movie to the screen," Grazer says.
Finding a director was just as serendipitous -- but a lot faster.
As Tate Taylor (The Help) was leaving a meeting about another project in Los Angeles, an Imagine Entertainment executive mentioned the James Brown script that had just arrived. "I was on my way to New York and I said 'I'd like to read the script,'" Taylor says. "The plane is probably just crossing over Las Vegas and I look at my producing partner, John Norris, and say, 'I want to make this movie.'"
Finding their James Brown might prove more difficult. "Friends were saying you're never going to find someone who can do all the acting and singing and dancing," Jagger says. "You're going to have to use body doubles."
Taylor had his eye on Chadwick Boseman. "I chased him down," Taylor says. "He said, 'No way. Who could ever do James Brown?' After a two-hour phone call, I got him a little bit curious and he came to L.A."
"The script was written in an expressionistic, stylistic, non-linear form," Boseman says. "If someone pulled it off, it would be amazing. It was the rhythm of the script more so than the content."
Rather than testing for an electrifying stage persona, Taylor asked Boseman, who is 32, to read a scene in which a 63-year-old Brown somberly reunites with his former bandmate and friend Bobby Byrd.
"I want people to act where it pulls you in and not act at you," Taylor says. "I know that when you think of James Brown you don't think of quiet dignity, but I knew we had to have that base somewhere in the story. And that's when I started honing in on Chadwick.
"He started talking as a 63-year-old and I said 'This is definitely James. God, I hope he can learn how to dance.' "
The second test was shot like a mini concert movie. Boseman worked for three days with choreographer Aakoman Jones on a medley of Cold Sweat, Can't Stand It and a bit of Try Me. The cinematographer and the costume and wig designers all experimented. "We shot take after take from different angles and cut it together," Boseman says.
"I had Chad's screen test in my house in L.A., and Octavia Spencer dropped in and saw me watching it on my computer," Taylor says. "She goes, 'Wow, he was so good.' Meaning James Brown. I said that was Chad Boseman's screen test, and she said, 'I hope you're done looking.'"
Boseman knew Brown was an iconic performer — "Michael Jackson. Madonna. Bruce Springsteen. Elvis. Nobody can touch them. James Brown is up there," he says — and he knew some of his songs, but he was not a fanatic. Then he started to read.
"Once you open up those books (including Brown's autobiography), you go, 'Oh, I didn't really know who this guy was. It's rooted in the blues, basically. It's Southern. It's got pain and humor wrapped up into it.
"And he's an anti-hero. I personally like anti-heroes. De Niro in Casino and Pacino in The Godfather. And in somebody's story you actually are the villain."
The movie opens with the shooting incident that landed Brown in prison for aggravated assault and eluding the police in a wild car chase. He unjustly docks bandmembers' pay. There are allusions to drug use and tax problems, and he strikes wife DeeDee.
"There are moments you don't really don't like him," says Jagger. "But you're still sympathetic to him because it gives you a rounded view of this person."
We know so much about the music, and there's the public scandal, says Spencer, who plays his Aunt Honey, "but we know very little about his early life and the foundation that was laid that made him that entrepreneur with such a strong work ethic. He got a lot of that from Aunt Honey — and perhaps some of the vices."
After being abandoned by his mother and father, young James lived with Honey and earned money by helping solicit servicemen to her well-run brothel.
"He was definitely a complex man and he definitely had his problems, but he was so gifted."
From singing gospel and R&B with the Famous Flames, to becoming The Godfather of Soul and The Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk, Brown's musical influence spread beyond his own performances to the next generation's hip-hop. That's where Boseman began his personal connection.
"I have directed what we call hip-hop theater," he says. "If I was a break dancer this would be infinitely easier, because essentially hip-hop dance has some of its beginnings in James Brown's movements.
"But I feel like I'm an athlete, and there is athleticism and rhythm involved, so I came at it from that perspective."
Brown was a boxer, and the movements mimic it. "Parry. Throw up your dukes. With every punch, your feet are moving," Boseman explains.
And it was essential to Taylor that the Southern qualities at the core of Get On Up be protected on screen.
"Chad is from South Carolina (the state where Brown was born)," Taylor says. "Maybe, he's got that red soil in his veins. And he needed that for the 63-year-old Mr. Brown."
"There are a lot of other actors from the South, too," Boseman says. "But I'm glad it's me."