The Okayplayer Interview: James Brown's Tour Manager Alan Leeds Speaks On 'Get On Up' + The New HBO Doc 'Mr. Dynamite'
James Brown’s longtime Tour Manager Alan Leeds (right) with Kevin Liles, Photo by Vickey Ford for Okayplayer
If James Brown was “the hardest working man in show business” his longtime tour manager Alan Leeds may be (by is own admission) “the luckiest man alive.” Although his client list is best described as short and sick, each name on the list (James Brown. Prince.D’Angelo. Maxwell.) has cast a super-humanly long shadow on the evolution of American music. Though music obsessive may very well agree with Mr. Leeds’ self-assessment, there is no doubt that he attracted talent less through luck than by being the best in the business–as well as his undeniable love for and knowledge of the music.
That knowledge, his proximity to the iconoclastic Godfather of Soul and his self-appointed status as JB’s archivist have conspired to place him as the key resource for any definitive work on the singer and his era up to and including the Hollywood biopic Get On Up starring Chadwick Boseman (which hit theaters earlier this year) and Alex Gibney‘s documentary take Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown (which makes it’s TV debut tonight at 9pm EST on HBO).
Leeds was a consultant on both films, the fount of authenticity from which screenwriters and documentarians alike had to draw in order to produce a credible screed on James. Okayplayer had the chance to speak with Leeds via his home in Minneapolis, detailing his contribution, the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the two projects and a (brand new) grab-bag of other revelations, from Prince’s favorite James Brown sides, right down to how to keep your gold lamé jumpsuit looking crispy while you’re on the road 5 nights a week, 51 weeks a year. Without further ado, we are proud to present The Okayplayer Interview with the legendary Alan Leeds. Or to address the music-nerds among us: are y’all ready for star-time?
OKP: When did you get involved with these two projects (Get On Up starring Chadwick Boseman and the HBO doc Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown)?
Alan Leeds: Well I’ve been involved with the biopic more or less since its inception, in the middle aughts…I’ll just pick a year and say about 2007 or ’08 I got a call from Nelson George (author of The James Brown Reader) who wanted to hook me up with Brian Grazer’s people. I met with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth who were writing the script and I showed them the archive [of James Brown material]. I was very involved with the writing of the script—I can’t claim a writer’s credit, because that’s not what I do, but it was a very hands-on consultancy! We went into great detail.
Anyway, they finished the script and then the project seemed to go away, right around the time James died, in fact. I guess the estate got involved and there were rights issues anyway it got put on the back burner. After a while I got a call and was told that Spike Lee was involved and the project was going to be revamped. He wanted to come to Minneapolis and hang out and see stuff from the archive, so I went through the whole process again with him. Which was great…I knew Spike from before. Well [long story short] it got put on the backburner a second time, I guess it was over budget. I don’t know the exact figures but apparently spike said something to the effect of “I want to make my next Malcolm X” and the studio was looking to spend about half that much.
One year ago I was told it was back on the front burner and Tate Taylor was going to direct based on the Butterworth script—and honestly since then, my involvement has diminished. Apparently, he had his own ideas about the film and he wasn’t that interested in what anybody else had to say.
OKP: But the finished film still drew on the Butterworths’ research with you and your input?
AL: Yes and honestly, the reason my involvement was diminished is that by the time Tate Taylor came aboard the job was done. There were one or two things that needed to be fixed in the script…there was one scene where it was written with tons of ‘motherfucker’ and ‘fuck this’ and ‘fuck that’ in it–which is just not the way James Brown talked. He was from the South and a certain era of the South. But that’s more of just a generation gap thing. People who grew up in the hip-hop era when language is so free don’t realize we didn’t always talk like that! So that needed changed, because it sounded more like the music industry in the ‘90s than in the ‘60s. And I cant fault them for that because they just didn’t know—by the time the film was finished I think the only 2 people involved who ever met James were Mick Jagger and I…