How ‘Get On Up’ Nailed the James Brown Look

Film’s production and costume designers lead Billboard through the film’s many times and places.

Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where James Brown recorded his legendary live album in 1962, was built in a middle school auditorium in Natchez, Miss., for Get On Up.

“We got lucky,” says production designer Mark Ricker. “The auditorium had just enough architecture going on that we could (add to). We extended the stage, built all the boxes, a section of the balcony and just painted the hell out of the place.”

Once they filmed Brown performing “Night Train” at the Apollo, they transformed the auditorium overnight for a 1966 sequence with “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” changing the curtain and covering the proscenium stage.

That auditorium was one of close to 90 sets in the Mississippi cities of Natchez and Jackson that fill in for Vietnam, Harlem, Macon, Ga., Paris, Cincinnati and the White House, spanning the 1930s up to the early 1990s. The costumes fill a similar span: Chadwick Boseman wears about 60 different outfits in Get On Up, 35 of which were custom-made to reproduce well-documented moments in Brown’s life.

Ricker and costume designer Sharen Davis were sticklers for detail on well-documented venues and events, such as his appearance on The T.A.M.I. Show, at Boston Garden the night after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and his arrest in 1988 after a police chase in South Carolina.

“If it’s iconic James Brown, I’m using it,” Davis recalls telling director Tate Taylor about her approach. “I don’t want to put something obscure in and have people think he never wore it. It had to be believable.”

The T.A.M.I. Show, 1964. “I knew that Tate was going to intercut the real thing, so we had to match that staging as closely as possible,” says Ricker (Julie & JuliaThe Help). “Our stage was much smaller than the real one, so we condensed the set to get a proper perspective. That auditorium in Natchez was a dead-ringer for the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium where they filmed The T.A.M.I. Show.”

“I actually replicated the houndstooth sport coat,” says Davis. “I tried to do exactly what he had on, which was hard because I had to find a fabric close to what he had on.”

Boston Garden, 1968. Shot in the Jackson Coliseum, says Ricker, “we positioned the stage so it could fill the frame. They filmed in sections and moved the same group of 300 people around. Pretty much the simplest (for us).”

“He actually changed his clothes a few times (at the April 5, 1968, show) so I got to play with that. They don’t have footage of all of it so I had him take off his jacket and perform in his vest.”

Olympia Theater, Paris, 1971. “For the gold jumpsuit, I took a liberty,” says Davis, whose credits include Dreamgirls and Ray. “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.”

“It’s different from the real Olympia,” notes Ricker. “Filmed in Jackson — we just tried to get as funky as we could. From the research, the stage was pretty basic — just platforms and not too much lighting — and we tried to make it as dynamic as we could, make it clear how different each era was and give each performance some character.”