TBT: Get On Up/RIP Chadwick Boseman

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Get On Up, the 2014 biopic of James Brown, has been on my list for a while now. With the passing of Chadwick Boseman (1976–2020), it shot up to the top. Boseman was only 43, and it feels so sad that he passed away so young, so I wanted to honor him a bit … and I’m glad that I did, as his performance in this is STRONG.

I’m of an age where the music of James Brown is classic, yet I only really knew old/weird James Brown. I admit, I grew up white in the suburbs, and so I didn’t really get his style — in particular, his hair! Now that I’m older and have lived in more diverse areas, learned more about musical styles beyond top 40 pop (and hair metal — oh my early teen years), and learned more about music history, he makes much more sense. Nonetheless, I still didn’t feel like I knew much about James Brown as a person, and I love a good biopic for giving me a (yes, usually fictionalized and generalized) idea of a person’s history.

Overall, I found the film entertaining and interesting, although at 2.5 hours it was a bit long — not in that I wasn’t engaged, but I did have to watch it in two rounds. It’s not a straightforward chronology — it begins in the 1980s, then flashbacks fill in Brown’s childhood growing up in the VERY rural south in the 1930s and 1940s, his early years in music in the 1950s, and his development as an artist. You do learn about the fundamental experiences that shaped his character, but the focus is more on him as an artist and the role he played in life, and less about his inner psychology. In particular, I felt like his relationships with his wives (one of which is basically 2 lines) and his perpetration of domestic abuse could have been more interrogated.

Boseman’s performance is STELLAR. I mostly know Brown from his stage performances, but Boseman’s off-stage portrayal felt very authentic. And DAMN that guy has range, especially when I compare his performances in The Black Panther and Marshall. The supporting cast is great, too, including Viola Davis as Boseman’s mother, Octavia Spencer as Brown’s aunt, and Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) as Bobby Byrd, good friend and member of Brown’s band. The twins Jamarion and Jordan Scott, who played young James Brown, gave particularly haunting performances.

There’s also some HIGH-LARIOUS lines, like when Brown arrives in Vietnam to play for American troops, and an army officer starts to tell him when/where he’ll play. Brown cuts him off with something like, “Do I tell you how to do your job? So don’t tell me where and for how long I can get funky.” Also, when his plane is shot at in Vietnam, Brown says, “Are they shooting at us? They trying to kill James Brown today. You want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?” LOLOLOLOL

 

Costumes in Get On Up

The costumes were designed by Sharen Davis, a talented designer who is known for doing a lot of films focused on Black stories, including FencesThe Magnificent SevenDjango UnchainedThe HelpDreamgirls, and Devil in a Blue Dress, as well as season 2 of Westworld.

According to an interview with Davis in Variety,

“The script is so wildly nonlinear, I told [director] Tate [Taylor], ‘I think I need to take a few liberties when he’s not onstage.’ Even in performance, she spruced up Brown’s duds, altering the color and the silhouette to ‘snap it up in places just a little bit, or bring it down where we need to bring it down'” (Steve Chagollan, “Davis’ Duds Spiff ‘Up’,” Variety, Aug. 5, 2014, 67).

In another interview, Davis said something similar:

“Tate and I had talked about it, and we decided let’s make this a little surreal, take things a little higher, as opposed to a little lower, as I did on the more realistic “Ray.” We wanted it as if the audience thinks: What am I watching? We’re all watching this man’s energy and flamboyance” (The Envelope: Sharen Davis’ ‘Get On Up’ costumes had to be as flashy as James Brown).

At the same time, Davis felt obliged to try to recreate Brown’s iconic looks, as they “were so James Brown, so sure and well-thought-out, they were almost a film on their own. The 60 costume changes [for actor Chadwick Boseman] gave me a lot to work with” (The Envelope: Sharen Davis’ ‘Get On Up’ costumes had to be as flashy as James Brown).

Working in vaguely chronological order, even though the movie doesn’t:

2014 Get On Up

Viola Davis plays Brown’s mother. They are POOR, living in a shack in the woods, in the 1930s.

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A bit more color on Davis.

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Child James Brown has a life that is SO sad. Here dad is dropping him off (forever) with his aunt. Note the print on Octavia Spencer’s dress!

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Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) looks FAB. She runs a brothel.

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James is influenced by a musical preacher. This suit was really nicely done!

2014 Get On Up

Everyone is in white at the church.

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Aunt Honey is a good parent, within reason. Note the appliquéd flowers on her print dress.

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Another angle on that dress.

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Getting going as a gospel group in the 1950s. There are some EXCELLENT pompadours in this film!!

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And the hairnets protecting the pompadours!! This is Little Richard, giving James some key advice.

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James starts having hits, and they are cross-overs. Here they’re filming a staged “ski chalet” number.

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The fabric of this suit was SO beautiful on screen.

Chadwick Boseman, Get on Up (2014)

This suit is a recreation of a real one Brown wore.

The source.

About the black & white suit, Davis said:

“It was, ‘How are we going to find that fabric?’ because we were mixing it with real concert footage, so it had to be right on. My assistant found it downtown. It wasn’t checkered but an off-white fabric with little black squares. Somehow on camera it worked great. I made three of these suits. We were shooting so fast, Chadwick would dance out of a costume in a day” (The Envelope: Sharen Davis’ ‘Get On Up’ costumes had to be as flashy as James Brown).

2014 Get On Up

This is another repro … ish. Davis said, “It turned pretty colors, blue and purple, and was made of a stretch silk-satin. In real life, James’ sapphire suit wasn’t so shiny. It was more of a sharkskin, but I was afraid it would go flat on screen” (The Envelope: Sharen Davis’ ‘Get On Up’ costumes had to be as flashy as James Brown).

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Brown requested purple brocade for his band. This is Bobby Byrd.

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Meeting President Johnson in a wide-lapeled, double-breasted suit.

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Wife #2 (Jill Scott), left, and wife #1

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Jill Scott’s curves were displayed beautifully.

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More shiny stage wear.

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This yellow jumpsuit is iconic, apparently.

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Here’s a bit more of it.

The LA Times asked Davis, “The gold lamé Superfly jumpsuit was his iconic flamboyant self. What material was that made from? And where was the ‘sex machine’ belt?” Davis responded:

“That jumpsuit was made out of Armani fabric, and I thought, ‘Giorgio would not believe what I’ve just done to his fabric!’ It was one of my favorite pieces in the film. I didn’t put the belt in because I didn’t want to distract from that scene’s dancing, which was phenomenal. The belt’s so iconic, it needed to be in the right spot, and he didn’t wear it to that concert” (The Envelope: Sharen Davis’ ‘Get On Up’ costumes had to be as flashy as James Brown).

Davis also told the Hollywood Reporter, “For the gold jumpsuit, I took a liberty. I saw a picture of him in it, don’t know exactly where he was, but I liked the color and the way the lighting on the stage worked” (How ‘Get on Up’ Nailed the James Brown Look).

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Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey have a small part as guests at the same hotel as Brown and his band.

Chadwick Boseman, Get on Up (2014)

Later in the film, Brown wears this shirt made of African fabric.

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Late period James Brown — the era I knew him from! Shiny suit, shiny shirt, shiny cravat.

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Lots of great vintage wear on the women; I loved this fitted dress with flowing chiffon overlay.

 

Have you seen Get On Up? What’s your favorite of Chadwick Boseman’s historical roles?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

7 Responses

  1. DRush76

    Good movie, although I’m more inclined toward Boseman’s portrayal of Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall”.

    Reply
  2. M.E. Lawrence

    I was impressed by C.B.’s performance; he captured James Brown’s persona and charisma to some degree, something I don’t expect in most screen bios. If you get a chance to see “The T.A.M.I. Show” concert film–it exists in at least several versions–take it; James in his glory, along with a fantastic line-up of mid-’60s British and American stars, and good fashion: go-go boots, mini-skirts, Marvin Gaye’s gorgeous white tux.

    Reply
  3. Lily Lotus Rose

    This is definitely my favorite Chadwick Boseman historical film. The movie is wild and crazy, just like the man himself. Even if someone didn’t like the movie, she’d still have to acknowledge that Chadwick Boseman did an AMAZING job! Definitely time to re-watch, though it will be with a heavy heart the second time around.

    Reply

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