Get On Up: Jill Scott on James Brown, Being Open, and A ‘Desperate’ Type of Love


Jill Scott may not appear until halfway through James Brown biopic Get On Up, but her screen presence—as it is in real life—is truly captivating.

Scott is among the stellar cast of characters who brings Mr. Dynamite’s story to life. Get On Up chronicles the legend’s rise and permeating appeal, with flashbacks to lesser-known aspects of his life: being abandoned by his mother as a child, hustling at his aunt’s Georgia brothel, facing his first arrest at 16. Scott plays DeidreDee DeeJenkins, the second wife to Chadwick Boseman’s Brown, during his Godfather of Soul era.

Glam spoke with Scott about the burden she carried in doing Brown’s legacy justice, what it’s like to draw inspiration from Brown as a singer, and longing for a “desperate” type of love.

Glam: What was one of your first James Brown memories?

Jill Scott: I think it was in the house, and my mother was playing music out of her old stereo and it was “dun dun dun…” And I remember my little shoulders like “what’s that?” That’s when I found out about James Brown. This funk that you can’t stop. This real, real black music. 

G: How has his impact on the industry influenced you as a singer?

JS: There’s nobody more passionate, there’s nobody left of right the way that James is. I’ve never heard a vocalist yell and scream and get that emotion out the way that he does. You can tell that it’s not just something that he does or that it’s a practiced thing—it is in the moment, it is right now. And that taught me a lot. That’s the kind of vocalist I want to be, and watching him rehearse with his band, you know how hard he works them. I’m not as hard on my band, but I really do demand a certain level of perfection, but my take on things is perfection so that we can forget it. I don’t want to over-perfect it so that it feels staged or done and tired and dry. I need it to be alive now, so rehearse the hell out of it so we know all the things that we can do and then let’s just forget it and be.

G: We get to see that “perfectionist” side of Brown in Get On Up. What other elements do you think the film reveals to audiences who may know little of his real life?

JS: I learned a lot about his childhood, about where his strength comes from. To have that level of a defiant spirit, to not fall into despair because life has been despairing. I think it just says a lot about that particular dynamic human being. You don’t have passion and power like that without having to go through some level of struggle. And his struggle was so internal—to be wounded like that by someone who was the closest to you—it will affect your entire life. You can see a therapist all you want—he sang his out. I loved in the film how he kept finding the light. He kept finding the light in the dark. It spoke volumes to me as a person, and I hope he speaks volumes to the audience as well.

G: I’m sure there was a heavy responsibility in translating Brown’s struggle and despair to the silver screen. How did you deal with that?

JS: I was actually pretty afraid. I didn’t want to talk to Dee Dee because I wanted to live inside of the script. I thought that, you know it’s the little things, and I thought she might say something that will make me feel some level of guilt for being what this woman is on this page. That made me cautious about it, so I asked. I asked her grandson to tell me about Dee Dee. He said one thing that just sparked it off for me about who she really was, who she really is: she loves him now. Now, he’s passed-away. [He’d] gotten remarried, had other children, had a whole other life after the 11 years that they spent together, but she still was in love with him. Not just loved him and had fond memories, but was in love. So that way that I approached Dee Dee was that she was just unabashedly in love with the man. The icon, the genius and yes, sometimes he takes things out or he expresses things in ways that she doesn’t like or ways that are harmful to her, but she loves the man and I wanted to stay there. I just wanted to be true to that as much as possible—to try to find some light in the dark.

G: In your own music, you’ve been very open about love: finding it, falling in and out of it. How do gauge how much to share with your fans and what to keep for yourself?

JS: Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to discern what to keep from the audience yet. I’m kind of a slave to my own pen. I listen to music, I look for “water.” I call it “water.” Music that I can swim to, swim in. Whatever kind of music it is, I kind of just wait for my pen to work, rather than trying to force it to work. And it takes time, but it is what it is. I can’t, I won’t step away from that. I won’t be a robot to something that is a gift not a given, so some things I wish I never said, some things I wish I could undo, but I was true to that moment and sang a song about something I wish I didn’t, but it is what it is.

G: It’s interesting you say water. I think your recent collaboration with SZA reflects that beautiful sort of fluidity. How did that come about? 

JS: I’m really good friends with Om’Ma Keith and we had been trying to hangout and couldn’t. He was in town, I was in town; it was like 1:00 or 2:00 o’clock in the morning. I was like “Are you up?” and he said yeah, and I went over there [to the studio] and she was there. I didn’t know her before. I enjoyed her freckles so much, I was like you’re so lucky to have those freckles and then we played a track and I started to write something and she was humming something and it was just very organic, real easy—I like that kind of environment. I like the song; I listen to it a lot. I listen to it to go to sleep—it really gives me that Zen feeling.

G: Is there any “watery” James Brown song that you would love to cover?

JS: Is it called “Please?” I would like to be that desperate. I would enjoy feeling like that, but not too often.

Watch Scott, Boseman, Tika Sumpter, and Nelsan Ellis in the trailer for Get On Up, and hit theaters when it’s released on August 1.