In many ways, the mere act of unveiling artifacts from the collection of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, starts to make things real funky up in the National Museum of African American History and Culture offices.
Actor Chadwick Boseman, who stars in “Get on Up,” the movie based on Brown’s life that opens Friday, and director Tate Taylor (who directed “The Help”) circle the items with insider eyes. Both Southerners, they examine the photos, shoes and black velvety cape for nuggets of meaning and musicality.
Taylor was struck by an image of Brown on a car that sported a bumper sticker touting a black-owned business. “Mr. Brown was always supportive of entrepreneurs,” Taylor says. “He probably said, ‘Gimme that bumper sticker, I’mmo put it on my car and drive back to Augusta so everybody can see.”
Boseman spotted technical details about how a microphone was taped so it wouldn’t fly off the stand as Brown tossed it around stage. Also: Boseman communed with the shoes. To master the signature JB splits and twirls, for a few months during filming, the actor himself had to become the hardest working man in show business.
Brown, who died of pneumonia at age 73 in 2006, is remembered not only as an iconic entertainer but also as the architect of some of the most seminal beats in the whole of American music, including the most widely sampled tracks in hip-hop. The artifacts Boseman and Taylor are perusing are part of the museum’s 35-item James Brown collection, some of which will be featured in the permanent exhibition on the history of African American music when the museum opens in spring 2016.
“It’s all about context,” said Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts. That bumper sticker “connects him to stories of segregation and assertion of the African American male identity.”
Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the museum under construction adjacent to the Washington Monument, has raised more than $170 million of the roughly $250 million in private funds (along with more than $250 million in public funds) needed for the project. That arguably makes him the nation’s new Soul Brother No. 1. Of Brown, he simply says Arthur Conley was right in his song “Sweet Soul Music,” when he sang: Spotlight on James Brown now/He’s the king of them all.
According to Bunch, Brown’s life featured both the achievements and the hard edges of the Civil Rights era. “We have an opportunity to show music as two sides of a coin. There’s the rhythm and joy of the creative process, and it’s impact,” Bunch said. “On the other hand, it’s a great lens into the social conditions people wrestled with.”
“Get on Up” uses Brown’s various monikers — “Mr. Dynamite,” “the Godfather of Soul,” — to move through his life story. The movie jumps around from concert halls to Brown’s Depression-era South Carolina childhood, depicting his gospel roots and time on the Chitlin’ Circuit. It shows him committing crimes, from stealing to beating his wife. The alchemy of abuse, abandonment and spending part of his childhood in a brothel — all against the backdrop of Southern negation — produced a life of messiness and cacophony. James Brown’s soul — jump back, wanna kiss myself — was just one its byproducts. So were drug use and police run-ins.
“I keep returning to how he lived his life,” Taylor said. He was instinctive. “He didn’t read music, he did not know how to write music.” He understood sound and signaled to his band when he was ready to hear something. “From that came the funk, from the instinct from this man,” Taylor said.
It was an instinct that served up some of music’s most raw and enduring exhortations:
Say it loud/I’m black and I’m proud!
“Stay on the scene . . .” sings the 37-year-old Boseman softly at the museum’s offices in Southwest Washington. Boseman grew up in Anderson, S.C., about 120 miles from Brown’s hometown of Barnwell, and graduated from Howard University. He periodically breaks into Brown lyrics or glides smooth-like across the floor as he greets the woman at the museum’s front desk.
The actor, who has rhythm and an athlete’s physicality (he starred as Jackie Robinson in last year’s biopic “42”) had just two months of training to learn to dance like Brown. “It was just a daily process of getting new things and new understandings of how the body works, doing that vocabulary,” Boseman said. “Those were things that were hard on my body for the first two weeks.” It was time spent “in pain, sore and overstretched.”
It’s also time he spent mostly in character and included a Georgia road trip to meet Brown’s family. “That was a museum itself,” Boseman said.
The near erasure that characterized Brown’s poverty — the experience of loving church music, but not having the clothes or shoes to actually go inside — inform his semiotics. And it informed Boseman’s interpretation of the artist.
The movie’s opening scene features Brown heading toward the din of the crowd. His hair is coiffed, his suit is laying on full, but it’s his fingers — precisely splayed, nails perfectly trimmed — that offer a clue into the actor’s, and by extension the artist’s, interior world.
Brown constantly reinvented himself, Boseman said. “I had to do the work of having images and ideas and things that he would think inside my head from research.” He cites an image of Brown in Zaire, before the famous “Rumble in Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, where his fingers are out. “It looks like he just got his fingers manicured. He’s feeling fly,” the actor thought. So that’s one of the places his head went in the movie.
“You’re always looking for that moment in each scene where you become one” with the character, Boseman says. There’s no way to know precisely when that will happen, but “walking in the tunnel, then that whole section backstage looking in the mirror.” There’s a moment “where I’m looking in the mirror where I actually see James Brown,” Boseman said. “I see James Brown, for real, in the mirror. That would be the moment for me.”
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sexual content, drug use, some strong language and violent situations. 139 minutes.