James Harwell, GodwinGroup’s Senior Art Director, will appear in Get On Up, a Universal Pictures movie based on the life of James Brown. The biopic stars Chadwick Boseman in the lead role, retracing James Brown’s rise from poverty to the “Godfather of Soul” and one of the greatest musical artists of the 20th century.
Harwell was cast as an orchestra guitarist backing James Brown (Boseman) and The Famous Flames on the set of the historic T.A.M.I. Show, a 1964 concert film featuring popular rock and roll and R&B musicians from the United States and England. The motion picture, filmed on location in Natchez and Jackson, will be released next summer.
“It was only after a last-minute submission of my bio that I got the part in the movie,” said Harwell. To apply for a role, applicants must submit information such as clothing measurements, height, weight and three head shot photos. Harwell said he used his iPhone to crop three existing photos of himself and submitted them — from his phone — with the other information.
“I thought that would be about it,” he said. “But soon afterward I received an incoming call while at work from a Natchez number. At first I hesitated on answering it, but then realized it could be casting for the movie. I’m glad I answered it.”
After learning that Harwell was also a guitar player, casting officials asked if he would be interested in playing guitar for scenes involving the Get On Up band. By the following Monday, Harwell found himself in Natchez for three days of wardrobe, rehearsal, make-up, hairstyling and shooting.
The T.A.M.I. Show concert, which actually took place in Santa Monica, California, was particularly well known for James Brown’s performance featuring his legendary dance moves and explosive energy. Harwell had to learn, play and perform two of James Brown’s songs for these scenes.
In another scene, Harwell appears with actor Nick Eversman, who plays a young Mick Jagger (Jagger is one of the film’s producers and also made a brief stop in Jackson during filming). That scene features actors portraying The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Supremes and Gertrude (Brown’s wardrobe assistant). All of Harwell’s scenes were with Bozeman, and he and Dan Aykroyd also shared several scenes.
Being on the set, Harwell said he was exhilarated by the feeling of going back in time to an era of music, art and design that has been such an inspiration and influence on him creatively. In addition to his more prominent role as a guitarist, Harwell had close-up shots as a businessman extra. He was also a pedestrian in several street scenes.
“I thank my longtime friend Cleta Elaine Ellington, First Assistant Director, for placing me in front of the camera. Plus we had a great time hanging out while filming here,” Harwell said. “It was even a learning experience. It was very impressive to see all facets of involvement — not just by the famous actors. The relevance of all the cast (many friends) and crew became apparent to me. I embrace collaborative process. Having the rare opportunity to participate, even to such a peripheral degree, allowed me to have an intimate perspective into how such an artful production of this scale happens. It’s so many people with so much creativity, talent and skill working together supported by experienced artistic direction.”
Get On Up was directed by Tate Taylor, who previously directed The Help, another movie filmed in Mississippi (with a GodwinGrouper among the cast for that project as well).