This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Mick Jagger is having a Hollywood moment … in Natchez, Miss., of all places. He’s come here to be on the set of Get on Up, the James Brown biopic he is producing with his Jagged Films partner, Victoria Pearman. It is Nov. 24, and Jagger is well into his first week on the set, just a few miles away from where the film’s director, Tate Taylor, lives. He slinks into the gilded ballroom of the former plantation-turned-historic Dunleith Inn, settles his tiny frame into a plush velvet couch and slips on his glasses, notes in hand. He’s ready to talk business, or more specifically, how he has found himself, at age 70, juggling production duties in several notable film and television projects. He is lithe, dressed in sneakers and a baby-blue cashmere sweater, and radiates the kind of healthy glow that comes with Jagger’s all-organic sober lifestyle, something he has practiced since 2001.
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"Then," he says, "you get on with the creative part of it."
There’s also time for fun. The night before, in this same room, Jagger hosted a dinner that morphed into a raucous dance party for some 25 cast and crewmembers of Get on Up. After the plates were cleared, Jagger’s longtime partner, the fashion designer L’Wren Scott, 47, slipped her iPod onto a dock and began dancing with the film’s executive producer John Norris. Then, a circle formed, and everyone — including Jagger — took a turn in the center, busting out their best moves. No one seems to remember the songlist, as the alcohol was flowing fast and freely.
"It was a little intimidating," Taylor says. "I was keenly aware that a rock star was watching, but I just said, ‘What the hell?’ "
It didn’t take long, though, before Jagger began showing actor Nelsan Ellis how his character, Brown’s collaborator and producer Bobby Byrd, actually danced. This is the type of expertise that almost nobody else has, based on first-hand experience: In 1964, Jagger and the Stones performed at the concert captured on film as The T.A.M.I. Show with Brown and Byrd.
But it’s not just insight into dancing and music that Jagger intends to bring to this $30 million undertaking from Universal Pictures. On this project and the many others he has on tap — including an Elvis Presley biopic with Fox 2000, an untitled HBO rock ‘n’ roll series with Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter, and both a scripted drama series and a Broadway play based on 20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville‘s Oscar-nominated documentary about backup singers (in which Jagger appears) — he wants to prove his ability to be more than a rock legend.
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Last year, Jagger’s tour with The Rolling Stones grossed an estimated $126 million. On Feb. 21, the band kicks off another world tour with stops in Australia, New Zealand, Abu Dhabi, Tokyo, Macau, China and maybe Tel Aviv. He himself is estimated to be worth $305 million. In his presence, multigenerational crowds flock to watch the infamous Jagger swagger, something so familiar that even today’s music stars like Adam Levine worship at his feet (Maroon 5’s ode "Moves Like Jagger" was one of the biggest hits of 2011). Mick Jagger, arguably the world’s last great rock star in a town where the term "rock star" is used loosely to define any variety of people with success, is the real deal.
But in Hollywood, where Jagger’s forays thus far have included the promising (2001’s Enigma as a producer) and the not-so-acclaimed (1992’s Freejack as an actor), the elusive icon still is emerging. But this is where the musician, whose band has sold 250 million albums (but amazingly has won only two Grammys), now says he wants to devote much of his time.
Jagger today splits his time between London, a castle in France’s Loire Valley and a home on the Caribbean island of Mustique. He is infinitely fascinated with the human psyche and a voracious reader, tearing through three books a week on a wide range of subjects. A night owl, he often rises at midday. Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos are among his all-time favorite TV shows.
With producing partner Pearman, a fellow Brit whom he met through his close friend Arnon Milchan when Pearman was an executive at Milchan’s New Regency, Jagger will discuss the latest Booker Prize winner or hot British playwright. And, at least on this day, he seems outright uncomfortable talking about music. Otherwise calm, if not slightly guarded, he is most at ease talking about the more mundane, like meeting the local sheriff of Natchez during a tour of the town. But he begins tugging his sweater and fussing with his hair when the conversation shifts to The Rolling Stones, whose last studio album, 2005’s A Bigger Bang, sold 2.4 million copies.
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He also appears disinterested at this moment in establishing his rock legacy. When asked about the success many of his rock peers have had with their books, notably his own bandmate Keith Richards, whose 2010 best-seller, Life, included some uncharitable observations about Jagger, he scoffs: "I think the rock ‘n’ roll memoir is a glutted market. I’d rather be doing something new. I’d rather be making new films, making new music, be touring. If someone wants to know what I did in 1965, they can look it up on Wikipedia without even spending any money."
So Jagger, in this role, now is juggling an array of projects, from his small shop, wielding the influence necessary to be a successful producer. Most of the projects are being developed with and financed by major studios or networks. "There’s virtually nobody on the planet who’s not gonna take the call from Mick Jagger, which as a producer is an incredible asset to have," says Neville, who also worked with Jagger on 2012’s HBO documentary Crossfire Hurricane. "It moves mountains, which is what a lot of producing is about."
Jagger, however, also has learned the hard rule of Hollywood Rejection 101: People in the entertainment business are not too star-struck to turn him down. "It’s a bit like saying no in Japan," he says. "They don’t say no, directly. They say no indirectly."
The idea for the James Brown biopic, set to be released Aug. 1, was first hatched by producer Brian Grazer more than a decade ago. Before Jagger came on board, Spike Lee was attached to direct the project, which was written by Brit brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, with Wesley Snipes and later Eddie Murphy as Brown. But he insisted on a $75 million budget.
"Spike could have made the movie years ago," says Grazer, whom Jagger knew socially before bringing him to the project. "But he assigned such a high number to make the movie for that no studio would do that."
When Brown died in 2006, his estate was in flux, and the project hit a dead end. Then Peter Afterman, who runs the James Brown estate, approached Jagger about doing a documentary on the Godfather of Soul.
"I said, ‘Let me think about it,’ " Jagger recalls. "So I woke up in the morning and said, ‘I’ll do the documentary. But would you like to do a feature?’ "
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With the music rights secured thanks to Jagger’s involvement, suddenly the stalled project was revived. In late 2012, Jagger and Grazer hired Taylor, whose star was rising in the wake of the box-office and critical success of The Help. The choice sparked controversy, though, with some complaining that only a black director should tackle James Brown’s life story. Director John Singleton expressed unease with the project in an essay last year for THR even as he praised Grazer’s past work with African-American actors and noted that Brits often have a greater appreciation for black culture than some white Americans.
"Still, it gives one pause that someone is making a movie about the icon who laid down the foundation of funk, hip-hop and black economic self-reliance with no African-American involvement behind the scenes," Singleton wrote.
Jagger has no patience for such criticism. "By that logic, only English people can play English people, only Americans can play Americans," he says, a little fire showing in his eyes. "I mean, come on. Look at [Cate Blanchett‘s] Elizabeth. That was a really great movie directed by an Indian [Shekhar Kapur]. I don’t care if you come from Timbuktu or Tonkin or, you know, London. It doesn’t matter."
Casting the actor to play Brown was the final critical decision. Jagger and Grazer drafted Chadwick Boseman, who already had stepped into the shoes of another trailblazer as Jackie Robinson in 2013’s 42. Jagger says that casting Boseman was "such a key thing." He adds, "You gotta get the guy right. You’ve got to get him perfect. Chad’s really worked very hard on [preparing]."