I close my eyes and imagine I’m stepping back in time. The year is 1971, and I’m seated in The Olympia music hall in Paris, surrounded by Afros and feathered haircuts, fly collars, bell bottoms and three-piece suits.
I say hello to the androgynous hippie next to me. He’ll be my concert buddy for the next few hours.
I listen closely for the count-off – it’s my cue to get on up out of my seat.
A spotlight illuminates a familiar face on stage. It’s James Brown, “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”
Brown counts off “one-two-three-four,” and the band breaks into its signature funk groove, Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.
Suddenly, the casting director yells, “Cut!” and the spell is broken.
Fast- forward 43 years. It’s 2014, and I’m in Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson, Miss., on the set of the new James Brown biopic Get On Up.
Lights, camera, action! We’re rolling.
RECENTLY, I SPENT a week working as an extra in Universal Pictures’ Get On Up. The film, set for release Aug. 1, chronicles Brown’s rise from an impoverished childhood to become one of the most influential performers in history.
Chadwick Boseman – who played Jackie Robinson in 42 – embodies “The Godfather of Soul,” with Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott, Tika Sumpter and Craig Robinson helping reincarnate Brown’s entourage.
The idea for the movie emerged more than a decade ago, when producer Brian Grazer (Imagine Entertainment) began working with Brown on the project.
After Brown’s death in 2006, the project languished as a battle began over his multimillion-dollar estate.
After years of controversy and litigation, music rights were finally secured and the vision for the movie was revived with the help of longtime Brown fan Mick Jagger, who was instrumental in the development of the film. Grazer and Jagger chose Mississippi native Tate Taylor (The Help) to direct the film and bring Brown’s life to the big screen.
Although it appears Augusta might have been considered as a filming location, Taylor held true to his Mississippi roots and used the opportunity to help develop the film industry in his home state. He shot every frame on Mississippi soil, including scenes depicting Paris and Vietnam.
ON JAN. 6, I arrived in downtown Jackson. As night drew near, a blast of wintry weather hit the city, causing a power outage in my hotel. Venturing down to the lobby, I noticed stars of the show, Boseman, Robinson (The Office), Sumpter (Sparkle) and Jamell Richardson in the lounge.
Gravitating toward the liveliness, I laughed to myself and thought, “Who needs electricity when you can bask in this glow?”
I introduced myself and said that the power outage was surely an indication that James Brown’s spirit was in the house.
I complimented Boseman’s performance in 42, and he was humble and grateful.
Director Taylor tends to go for relative unknowns when casting for roles, but Boseman had the advantage over the Hollywood elite because he was born in Anderson, S.C., and fit Taylor’s vision of “someone with the red soil of the South in their veins.” Later that evening, I joined the cast for the ultimate VIP treatment – a private concert.
As patrons were ushered out of Underground 119, a hip urban music venue, I walked alongside Robinson and Sumpter for a private get-together.
For the next three hours, I enjoyed the company and musical talents of some of the most noteworthy cast members.
Robinson, a former music teacher, captured everyone’s attention when he sat at the piano and began to play Biz Markie’s Just a Friend.
Boseman accompanied Robinson as he took to the microphone and belted out some of his favorite R&B tunes – including several from Sam Cooke. Shamarr Allen (New Orleans trumpeter) and Sumpter joined them.
I delighted in my good fortune and decided to share the experience with my 21-year-old son, who’s a big Craig Robinson fan. I called him and put Robinson on the phone.
After the initial shock wore off, my son asked: “Are you really hanging out with my mom?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Robinson replied. “Respect the cool factor.”
I thanked Craig and thought: “Wow! I feel good.”
THE NEXT DAY I shuttled over to Thalia Mara Hall decked out in my best 1970s outfit. I was ready to get up, get into it and get involved in re-creating the 1971 Olympia concert scene.
My journey here had started in the fall of 2013, when I read an interview with Russell Bauknight, the fiduciary of Brown’s estate, in which he mentioned the upcoming movie. Later, I found Tammy Smith Casting Co.’s Facebook page and noticed they were looking for extras.
My heart skipped a beat as I read, “We are looking to book the following paid extras for a scene filming January 7th in Jackson, Mississippi: Caucasian and African American men and women ages 18 and over for a really fun concert scene that takes places in 1971 Paris, France.”
Anyone interested was asked to submit three photos. No previous acting experience was necessary, no auditions were to be held and my calendar was open, so I submitted three photos and a week later received an e-mail that they wanted to book me.
I was ecstatic. Instructions were sent, along with photo boards giving retro hair and makeup tips.
As I entered the theater that day, I caught my first glimpse of Boseman in character and doing his thing. He slid effortlessly across the stage, demonstrating his mastery of Brown’s fancy footwork, moves and splits.
Musicians, backup singers and scantily clad go-go dancers took their places.
Earlier in the week, the casting company had sent a clip of the original concert footage, so we all had an idea of what they were looking for. Before the cameras began rolling, the dance choreographer spoke with us at length, instructing our group on typical dance moves of the era. The choreographer then went to the left of the stage, out of the sight of the cameras, to give visual instruction throughout the filming.
Powerful blasts of music filled the theater, and I took to my feet – clapping, dancing and chanting along. After each cut, the production crew would view the clips, move us around and offer suggestions.
Gentle reprimands were given as certain folks couldn’t help breaking into an enthusiastic “Arsenio Hall” arm pump and accompanying “Woof, woof, woof.” It was easy to get mesmerized by Boseman’s powerful performance, but we were urged to stay faithful to depicting the time period.
After six hours, it was a wrap and extras were free to leave. Boseman and the rest of the crew worked until the wee hours of the morning.
“There was one day that was like 15 hours of dancing, take after take after take after take,” Boseman later recalled. “I counted up and I think I did 90 splits.”
GET ON UP will focus on James Brown’s career in his late 30s but also promises to touch on his battles with drug addiction, domestic violence and financial difficulties.
One can speculate that the infamous two-state car chase will make the cut, as one of the first big scenes filmed outside Jackson sought extras for “a really great car-chase scene.”
If you’re curious about what parts of Brown’s life will make the cut, you will have to get on up and get on out to a theater this summer.
As Taylor, puts it: “You will have to buy a ticket and come see it.”