Jagger's New Swagger: Mick Moves to Movies, Blasts Idea of Memoir
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.
"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.
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.
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?' "
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]."
Fast-forward a year, and Jagger and Grazer were preparing to leave for their November trip to Natchez. Jagger first made a pitstop in Los Angeles, where they convened at a party at Jimmy Iovine's house.
"He danced for like an hour and a half straight," Grazer remembers. "R. Kelly was playing, and Mick got everyone dancing, even Oprah. You couldn't leave. He was magnetizing."
But it's the rocker's hands-on involvement with Get on Up and his other producing projects that has earned Jagger major props from studio executives and fellow producers. In fact, Jagger eschews the drive-by role often typical of a celebrity producer.
When Fox chief Jim Gianopulos was looking for input on marketing materials for the international release of the 2008 Rolling Stones documentary Shine a Light -- which Scorsese directed and Jagger produced -- he asked whom to contact. "I was told, 'You have to talk to Mick.' I thought, 'Oh, it's the Stones' publicist or their manager or some agent.' And I said, 'Mick who?' They said, 'Jagger.' I said, 'You're kidding.' "
Sure enough, Gianopulos found Jagger to have informed opinions on virtually every aspect of the production, from trailers to key art. Lurking behind Jagger's rock god persona was, he says, "a very creative, disciplined and intelligent businessperson."
Scorsese isn't surprised, arguing that Jagger's talents and his experience are sui generis. "Mick is absolutely alone in a very important sense -- he's a consummate artist, performer and businessman," he says. "I have a feeling that nothing escapes his notice. No detail is too small. So, here's a guy who has been at the center of the music industry for many years, on multiple levels, and he has what appears to be a perfect memory as well as a rich sense of character and of drama, of cinema. … Who could be a better artistic collaborator?"
Jagger has been gaining his footing as a producer for nearly two decades. He and Pearman bonded over their shared love of literature and formed Jagged Films in 1995. After stumbling upon Robert Harris' Enigma, a thriller about World War II code breakers first published in the U.K., he urged L.A.-based Pearman to acquire the rights. Lorne Michaels already owned the option, so Jagged teamed up with Michaels' Broadway Video. Jagger enlisted friend and Oscar winner Tom Stoppard to write the screenplay, and the 2001 Kate Winslet starrer became Jagged's first narrative feature credit. The film earned $15.7 million worldwide and earned mostly positive reviews.
Jagged Films' next project, Diane English's 2008 remake of The Women, didn't fare as well with critics, who eviscerated the performances of the buzzy cast that included Meg Ryan and Annette Bening. Still, the $16 million film earned $50 million worldwide. But aside from the occasional Stones documentary like Shine a Light, Jagger has been relatively quiet. Until now.
After Get on Up (Jagger's cameras simultaneously are rolling on the Brown documentary, helmed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney), Jagger will segue to the untitled Scorsese-Winter HBO series. The project, which Jagger originally pitched to Scorsese as a feature idea 10 years ago, is a decades-spanning chronicle of the changing music industry through the eyes of a fast-talking A&R executive. The pilot, which is being written by Breaking Bad's George Mastras, is scheduled to shoot early this year with Bobby Cannavale starring.
Jagger also hopes to begin filming Last Train to Memphis, the Elvis biopic, in early 2014. Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) is directing with Jagger's longtime friend Steve Bing co-producing. T Bone Burnett is the musical director. As with the casting of James Brown, Jagger knows that choosing the young Elvis will be a crucial, highly scrutinized decision. "The actor has to have a look, but they also gotta have that kind of magnetism," he says. "People would fall down at their feet [for Elvis]. You've got to make that be believable."
Further down the road is the Jagger-produced Fresh Tears, with Iain Softley in talks to direct. Jagger will play a supporting role in the coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the music industry, which reunites the Hitchcock team of producer Tom Thayer and writer John McLaughlin.
Jagger chafes at the notion that he's focused only on music-themed projects. "Normally, people want to talk to me about being onstage, and if they want to hear about the film thing they go, 'Oh yeah,' " he says. "But I'm not just interested in doing musical films."
As proof, he points to Tabloid, a film that he will produce and star in, tackling the role of a Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul. Oscar-nominated writer Josh Olson (A History of Violence) wrote the screenplay, and Bing is financing through his Shangri-La Entertainment. Jagger and Pearman also are producing Tiny Problems of White People with Dallas Buyers Club producer Rachel Winter. In the family drama written by Will Aldis, Jagger will play a mythical character named DeVere.
The two acting vehicles could help reverse the perception that Jagger never has been able to parlay his personal charisma onto the big screen. Michaels, for one, argues it's an unfair rap. "He's funny and smart, and you don't get to see that side," Michaels says, adding that he considers Jagger's 2012 Saturday Night Live hosting gig one of the best in recent years.
"It's easier on SNL as it is for Justin Timberlake, too," Michaels concedes. "They're already larger-than-life characters. It's hard if he's playing the bank manager in Philomena. You go, 'Hey, there's Mick Jagger.' "
For almost anyone, Jagger's to-do list would be daunting. And yet the soon-to-be great-grandfather (he has seven children and four grandchildren) is at a loss to fully explain why he's suddenly doing so many different things. "I've been doing it for quite a long time, you know," Jagger explains.
Compartmentalization, clearly, is necessary. "I watched the guy go from selling out the Barclays Center [in 2012] and then, a day later, sit in a meeting," Terence Winter says. "He just puts a different hat on and now he's a producer. It's like he's literally the biggest rock star in the world in the middle of a tour and then he can switch gears and just start talking about a script and story changes."
But even among Hollywood's most powerful, there's a sense that Jagger remains a unique creative partner, one who occupies a rarefied station among Tinseltown's rarefied. Gianopulos says he often finds himself in the middle of a business conversation and, "I think, 'Wow, I'm talking to Mick Freakin' Jagger,' " he quips. Fox 2000 head Elizabeth Gabler, who is working with Jagger on Last Train to Memphis, has worked with plenty of A-listers, but even she admits she was completely starstruck.
"I was nervous to meet him, and I thought that I would be speechless," Gabler says. "But I found him to be just so knowledgeable and passionate and engaged and completely in the present and funny. After a while, I forget that I've grown up with this person who is such a large part of our cultural landscape."
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