Although the brothel is seedy, Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo SDSA wanted to convey more of Aunt Honey’s character, “I used a lot of things that were probably beautiful in a former life but were showing their age…”
There’s a reason “The Godfather of Soul” was also known as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Born dirt-poor in the backwoods of South Carolina during the Great Depression, James Brown survived a young life of abandonment, abuse, reform school, jail. Nobody ever taught him the rules, so he was destined to break them. He channeled hard knocks into a beat that echoed his own pulsing life force.
Based on Brown’s incredible life story, the feature film GET ON UP offers a look inside the music, moves and moods of one of the most influential creators and performers of popular music, and the most sampled artist in history. James Brown continues to inspire and inform artists today, including those that dedicated themselves to revealing his life story on film.
Director Tate Taylor grew up in the South. James Brown was part of the soundtrack of his life. “Tate’s a Southern man, like James Brown, and understands those sensibilities,” says actress Olivia Spencer, who plays Brown’s Aunt Honey. "He knows that a story like this must include the pathos, the humor, the grit, the glamour— all of it.”
“He has a breadth of vision at developing the characters, the drama and the explanation of why and how the moments of James’s life happen,” says Producer Mick Jagger, whose first meeting with James Brown on the T.A.M.I. concert stage is chronicled in the film. “I found Tate’s approach so refreshing…I imagine that James would quite appreciate the sheer cheekiness of it.”
As a true Southerner, Taylor was determined to film in his home state of Mississippi, “There may be no better place for contradiction, paradox, beauty and pain—old and new—than the real South. It’s hot, and it’s green. There are bugs, there’s roadkill, there’s religion and there’s booze,” he states. So the film was shot in Natchez, Mississippi and Jackson, Mississippi, and a few points between.
To authentically and soulfully bring Brown’s dynamic life and music to the big screen, Taylor wisely turned to his collaborators from the critically acclaimed film THE HELP, including Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt ASC/BSC, Production Designer Mark Ricker, Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo SDSA and Costume Designer Sharon Davis. [See article THE HELP in film decor]
There’s a familial camaraderie combined with professional respect that works for this team. DeAngelo notes, “Tate trusts us to know what we’re doing, and he totally appreciates our input. For instance, there is a pivotal scene that takes place in the latter part of the film, which had been written as ‘1988, James is smoking PCP in the bathroom’. That would have been the only shot of his penthouse in Augusta, which was his home for the remainder of his life. So Mark and I lobbied for a wider peek, a deeper glimpse of his home. We said it would be a shame to do a movie about James Brown and not see what the interiors of his houses looked like, particularly at that point, when he had money and the trappings that go with it. We wanted to be able to visually bring him all the way in the other direction from the decrepit shack he lived in when he was a kid.”
Brown penthouse, Augusta, Georgia 1988…
“When we were scouting, we found this crazy location, an unexpected penthouse of a motel right in Natchez. It had wonderful wood paneling, plus fantastic wallpaper in the dining room. We suggested to Tate that instead of setting the scene in the bathroom, James could be sitting at his dining table, viewed through the living room. His response was, ‘Absolutely! Do it. It would be great to see more of his home.’ And then he planned the whole scene around this new set.”
“Of course, the place was a bit disgusting,” she adds with a laugh. “There were ripped water-stained drapes and nasty stains on the carpet, so we stripped it down to bare bones, keeping only the paneling and the wallpaper in the dining room. Starting from there, we created this 1980s penthouse, with James' version of funk and glamour and home.”
“Jason Brown, James’ grandson, was a production assistant on the film, and very helpful. He provided family photos, some of which I used on set, and others I used for reference to what his home life actually looked like, pulling out specific elements for inspiration.
Paris Hotel, 1981…
“In that same building, we built a beautiful Paris hotel suite in soft French blues, put in French doors, chandelier, sconces and elegant furnishings. It was a gorgeous set, but the scene was too sexy for PG13, and was cut,” she imparts with a sigh.
Brown house, Augusta, 1965…
“The 1965 house is James Brown's first big home, where he lives with his second wife DeeDee [Jill Scott]. We had a color scheme of orange, green, red and black that manifested in different versions throughout his homes. They are bolder in this living room/dining room, softer in the bedroom, and become more modern in the 1988 house.”
These sets were on the other end of the spectrum from Brown’s early life, which began in a squalid shack in the backwoods of South Carolina.
Barnsdale, South Carolina shack, 1938…
“Mark built the shack in the middle of this vast untouched forestland on the property adjacent to Tate’s,” says DeAngelo. “It’s like a wilderness, with no buildings or wires in any direction you can see.” The shack is deep in these hushed woods. “Tate was firm about the squalor, that even though it was in this beautiful natural setting, life was harsh and isolated, and they had nothing,” shares DeAngelo. “We lined the walls in newspaper, as people often did for insulation during the Depression, and we gave them very few belongings, none in great shape. The palette was pretty colorless, especially against the colors of nature, and we wanted to keep it that way for that whole period.”
Brothel, the Terry neighborhood, Augusta, Georgia early 1940s…
The young James is brought to his Aunt Honey’s brothel in 1940, as his dad enlists in the Army after having abusively run-off his mother a year or so before. The brothel was in an unpaved neighborhood of Augusta called the Terry.
DeAngelo reveals a fascinating detail about this set. “There was a real brothel in Natchez called 'Nellie’s', whose namesake ran it from the 1970s through the end of the ‘90s, when she was tragically killed. Everybody loved Nellie.” The house, built in the 1920s, is on the corner in one of the many little neighborhoods of Natchez. “Tate wanted to use it as the exterior for our brothel. It would be a perfect tribute, but it had been completely overgrown with trees, bushes, brambles and weeds. You couldn’t even walk through the yard. But Stephanie Waldron, our greens foreman, cleared out all the poison ivy, poison oak and brush. We pulled all the dead and growing stuff off of the front of the house, built the exterior staircase, and restored the house to its former squalor,” she smiles.
“The interiors were filmed in another house just down the street. It was perfect for the brothel…a long hall with room after room and then the one parlor area. We wallpapered, then scenic added water damage and more shabbiness.”
“The sofa was the piece that determined the look for the rest of the brothel. Tate wanted the place to be seedy but I didn’t want it to be completely disgusting, so I used a lot of things that were probably beautiful in a former life but were showing their age. Nothing too romantic or pretty. I found a lot old lacy, heavily-stained fabrics at an estate sale —an entire closetful of wonderful worn vintage curtains and linens and quilts. Although it’s a working brothel, it is still a house where these women live. They cook meals, do laundry, clean house and have a relatively normal daily existence. We tried to give the kitchen and back yard those details.
Boxing ring – Augusta country club…around 1940…
Dunleith Plantation, an antebellum landmark in Natchez, stood in for an early 1940s country club. The scene is jarring, almost surreal, with a boxing ring set up on the luxurious grounds. “That scene is horrible and beautiful at the same time,” DeAngelo declares. The juxtaposition of wealthy white people strolling about partying while a Black Dixieland band plays background music as small Black children are led onto the ring to fight is extremely difficult to watch, but there is a painterly quality to the scene, an almost dreamlike languidness, that keeps pulling us in.
Sweet Daddy Grace’s United House of Prayer for All People – early 1940s…
The other almost painterly set was the abandoned church in the outskirts of the Terry where a revival is in full swing, drawing the young James in. The dollar bills pinned onto Sweet Daddy Grace’s white suit impressed the boy almost as much as the music.
DeAngelo recalls, “We did research on Sweet Daddy Grace, and discovered that his people would get any kind of space they could find, and he would have the women go in and decorate the place a little bit for him. So we cleaned up an abandoned church, whitewashed it and put up a couple of banners. I found a place that had wonderful old crepe paper. We used only about 6 strands, though, because we wanted the setting to be realistic and simple.”
“Sharon had dressed all the actors in 1940s white suits and dresses, so with the sunlight streaming in, it was a beautiful scene. And Stephen shot it beautifully, all light, just as his shots of Aunt Honey’s were all dark. He really caught the mood of each scene.”
“Sharon and I were in sync throughout the film. We were perfect complements to each other," DeAngelo shares. "That carried over from our time together on THE HELP. It was another fantastic part of doing both these films, as are all the friendships that have developed.”
Byrd home – Toccoa, Georgia – 1950s…
After young James found the church and music, he found jail. He was incarcerated in Toccoa, Georgia for stealing a suit from the back of a car. Bobby Byrd, who would become his best friend, was performing church songs at the jail, met James and they instantly bonded. Bobby talked his family into letting James come live with them. “The Byrd house was the first real home he had ever known,” explains DeAngelo. “This is in the 1950s, so we figured that they had probably moved into it in the ‘40s and hadn’t changed much about it since then.”
“When you look at the research pictures for this period, there’s always a lot of pattern and a lot of wallpaper. Mark and I like to play with pattern and I love to layer pattern on pattern, so this was ideal for us. I just dove into the period wallpapers and fabrics!”
“I found the rug that’s in the living room at a booth in an antique mall in Jackson. Ironically, it was the booth’s rug and not for sale. They were adamant, “It’s just covering the booth floor. It’s been here forever. We’re not selling it.” I have to admit it was filthy and gross, but it was a perfect 1940s floral that went with the wallpaper and the curtains for that set. I had to have it! I came back a few days later and there was a sign on the booth that said, “Entire contents 50% off.” So I ended up not only getting the perfect rug, but also getting it for almost nothing!”
Barbershop, fish shack, malt shop…”perfect” locations…
Speaking of perfect, The Malt Shop is another Natchez landmark. The producers pronounced it, along with a local barbershop and a longstanding corner fish shack as “perfect” locations that could be used pretty much as is.
DeAngelo laughs, “Oh yes, perfect! Except…while the malt shop was in great shape, the sign was from 1970, everything inside of it was modern-day malt shop equipment, the windows were aluminum, and this is supposed to be 1957. So they’re saying, ‘It’s perfect, it’s perfect.’ And I’m saying, “But we have to change EVERYTHING.’ So we pulled out all of their equipment and put in all period-correct equipment. We took down all the signage, put up new signs and did other change-outs. Then it was perfect!”
“And the barbershop where the four guys are getting their naturals… It’s a great-looking barbershop on the outside, but we walked in and, except for two barber chairs, every single thing was modern. So I stripped the entire place down to the walls. Then we had to build out mirrors and re-do all the furnishings and equipment…so we were prepping in there for days.”
The fish shack is this greasy place where this wonderful old man makes the best catfish fritters, and has probably been making them right there all of his life. But it had modern refrigerators, so those got switched out. I did leave most of the other stuff, because it was a funky fritter shack. Around back, we had to take away all the junk that was piled out there and then I added the tables and put in the guys cutting up the fish. Again, then it was perfect.”
“What did work out was that much of it was all right there in Natchez. It was the only way we were able to do what we did, because every location was 2 to 5 minutes away from another location, even the auditorium. So we didn't have to drive far between locations every day and make these huge company moves. Everything was within walking distance of everything else, which saved us, because I could run from one set to the next when we were prepping them all—simultaneously! I’d literally run from the Byrd house around the corner to the T.A.M.I. Show stage, and then down the street to the next set. At one point, I had the Brothel, the Byrd house,The T.A.M.I. Show, James’s penthouse and the Paris hotel all being prepped at the same time. And then I’d zip out to the woods to the shack, to make sure that was happening as it should.”
“The shopping, however, was something else. I decimated all of the antique stores in Natchez, and shopped out many of the other stores. But then, it wasn’t like I could go down the road to the next town. Well, I could, and I did, but the next town was a minimum of 2 hours away. So I would have to plan extended road trips. I shopped New Orleans and most points between, although there aren’t many!”
“In a lot of ways, this was more difficult than THE HELP, because that entire film was set in one time period, in one town. This one covers seven decades and is set in places all over the world, not just the South, but also King Records in Cincinnati, an army base in Vietnam, the Paris concert and hotel, New Orleans and California. So I needed a much wider range of period pieces.”
“We had 94 sets and a shooting schedule of 48 days. And if I sent a truck out of town for a pick up, wherever they were going would be far, so we’d lose the truck for a day. So we had to have multiple trucks, and obviously lots of set dressers with all the over-lapping sets! My wonderful leadman Shann Why-not Young, who was also my lead on THE WAY, WAY BACK, built a great team and did an incredible job managing it all.”
King Records, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1954-1965…
“Syd Nathan’s office at King Records, the conference room and the other offices there were the most challenging to furnish from where we were, because they were mid-century, and not high-end mid-century. I shipped the glass bookcases down from a favorite resell store in Boston, and found the conference table by word-of-mouth, which of course is how the South works. I discovered the chairs when we were scouting in Jackson and having lunch at the restaurant Hal & Mal’s, who are friends of Tate. I suddenly thought, ‘These chairs would be perfect for the KR conference room!’ I asked if we could borrow 15, and of course, they said yes.”
Recording studios & radio station…
The King Records recording studio was another major set, one of several detailed recording studios created for the film. DeAngelo says, “We built the booth in a backroom of the auditorium that we used in Jackson for the Paris concert. I got all the equipment from History for Hire. I could not have done this movie without them. Pam and Jim are amazing. We flew to LA and spent 2 days at their prop house, and they had everything we needed. Jim knows all of it—he’s even written a book on Vox amplifiers! He was so knowledgeable, and helpful. They had recording studio equipment, period stage mikes & equipment, radio station stuff and TV cameras from every era we needed…1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s. They made what I thought was going to be the hardest part of the job the easiest.
Stages, auditoriums and concert halls…
The seminal concert that James Brown recorded live at the world famous Apollo Theater of Harlem in 1962 was re-created at the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center, an imposing former school in Natchez built in 1927. Ricker, DeAngelo and their teams transformed its neglected 660-seat auditorium into the iconic theater. “Mark built the proscenium and the theater boxes overlooking the stage, I added curtains in the back and suddenly the seemingly small place looked huge,” DeAngelo remembers.
The film’s premiere was held at the real Apollo. “It was amazing to sit there in the mezzanine of the Apollo watching our Apollo on screen,” shares DeAngelo. “Even the lights under the boxes read well! After the screening, people kept asking if we had shot that part of the film at the Apollo. It was fabulous!”
This same theater was then redressed for the “It’s a Man’s Man’sMan’s World” performance, an unnamed venue on an unnamed night during one of his many non-stop tours. The redress included, “Another fantastic curtain made for us by Drape Kings in NY, this one in an unusual green, backed by 35-feet long sparkly beaded strands,” describes DeAngelo.
The Boston Garden…April 5, 1968
On April 5th 1968, James Brown insisted to the mayor of Boston that his show should still go on even though it was the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Brown rightly thought he could forestall rioting and help bring people together. “Thankfully, that scene was shot in an actual concert stadium and we didn’t need to do all that much other than build the stage in the center of the place and provide the period equipment,” DeAngelo imparts. “It was the coliseum in Jackson, which was built in the 1960s, so it was period-ready, even to the vents in the ceiling.”
Olympia concert, Paris 1971…
Thalia Mara Hall in downtown Jackson provided the production with locations for several scenes, most notably, the 1971 Olympia theater concert in Paris. A six- camera shoot portraying French fans of funk was the most elaborate of the film’s music sequences.“We had actual footage of this concert for reference.” DeAngelo points out. “Once again, it was all about the stage curtains and all the vintage equipment. And then we used a large backstage room to create one of the recording studios.”
T.A.M.I. Show, Santa Monica, 1964…
The TEEN AGE MUSIC INTERNATIONAL show, a 1964 concert film showcasing numerous popular rock and roll and R&B musicians, was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the US Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The Wikipedia listing notes:
“T.A.M.I. Show is particularly well known for James Brown's performance, which features his legendary dance moves and explosive energy. In interviews, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones has claimed that choosing to follow Brown & The Famous Flames was the biggest mistake of their careers, because no matter how well they performed, they could not top him.”
“I loved this set!” DeAngelo remembers. “We were happy that they were going to intercut our stage with the actual footage from the show. We built the podiums to match perfectly…we had all the actual pictures and video which we watched on a continuous loop…and we tried to make it look as much like the real shows as we could. It ended up pretty seamless on screen.”
Which can be said for all of the sets.
The look of the film and Chadwick Boseman’s performance as James Brown have been particularly lauded by critics and cheered by audiences.