When it comes to recreating the world of iconic ’60/’70s chart toppers, Sharen Davis has become the go-to guru of sartorial splendor, especially when it comes to outfits that pop on stage.
For “Dreamgirls,” the musical inspired by the mercurial rise of the Supremes, and “Ray,” the cradle-to-the-grave biopic about bluesman Ray Charles, Davis’ costumes ranged from fanciful to picture-perfect accuracy. But for the James Brown movie “Get On Up,” her approach landed somewhere in between.
“On ‘Ray,’ even though it was the same time period, I kind of really stayed correct with him,” explains the two-time Oscar-nominee who reteamed with “The Help” director Tate Taylor on the Brown biopic. “But, for ‘Get On Up,’ the script is so wildly non-linear, I told Tate, ‘I think I need to take a few liberties when he’s not on stage.”
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.” For the Godfather of Soul’s epochal appearance on the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, her short-waisted checked coat and matching double-breasted vest are updated facsimiles, employing a nifty tuxedo tie instead of the knotted number that Brown actually wore. And for the 1968 recording session of “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” she was more assertive in her artistic license.
“The script read ‘dashiki’,” she says. “I just thought ‘he wouldn’t wear one of those a dashikis; James Brown would have a custom-made shirt from Africa. So we used African fabric and made his shirt, as opposed to wearing the dashikis the band had on.”
On the more flamboyant side, there is Brown’s gold lamé jumpsuit from his ’71 concert at Paris’ Olympia, and Davis’ favorite over-the-top ensemble, a full-length fur coat, leather vest and cowboy hat.
Because Chadwick Boseman, who played the singer, is more svelte than Brown, who had a more compact boxer’s build, the actor was able to pull off a wider fashion palette.
“His pants were not as tight as James Brown’s, because his body type is so different, if I were to make them that tight he would look like 6’3,” says Davis. “So I had them fit looser to take out, to make you not notice that he’s so tall.”
That looser fit not only gave the illusion of a shorter appearance on camera, but also allowed room for Boseman to pull off the exhilerating physicality of Brown’s dance moves, including his trademark splits, without any fear or tearing.
“Thank goodness for modern day because a lot of the fabrics have like 10% lycra in them,” says Davis.. “Still we’d have to pray.”
Of course, Davis pored through every visual reference available to her and her team (it’s amazing what one can find on YouTube these days), including access to rare photos from the James Brown estate. But at the end of the day, Davis approached her task like the best costume designers, allowing character and story, first and foremost, to dictate how she interpreted Brown’s complex personality and mystique.
“I felt by looking at all this research that he was a master of reinventing himself,” Davis explains. “When he first saw Little Richard playing (in the movie), I had a blue suit on Little Richard, and then he would take that idea and then make it more intense with his own blue suit. I constantly had him taking things from people he would meet on his way and then making it his. Everyone knows how Madonna reinvented herself constantly, and that’s what James Brown always did.”