The only word for it was weird. On the same day Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling was dynamiting his chances of remaining in the NBA, as well as any lingering delusions about a post-racial society, Alex Gibney was providing audiences at the Tribeca Film Festival with a sneak peak at “Mr. Dynamite: James Brown and the Power of Soul.” The James Brown who appears in Gibney’s more than two-hour-long work-in-progress never harbored delusions about anything — except maybe his onetime favorite presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, who, on the audiotapes included in “Mr. Dynamite,” might as well have been channeling Donald Sterling (“No more black stuff,” Nixon said. “Don’t bring them in here…”).
A movie about the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, made by the Hardest Working Man in Documentaries – Gibney’s output remains ridiculous – was not finished and thus not to be reviewed. So this is not a review. The evening, in fact, was billed as a “conversation with” Gibney who, during his opening remarks, said that he hoped to get feedback from the audience to help him refine the final result.
Instead, he got was the usual worshipful Q&A (“I just want to say…this movie is brilliant!”). A less festival-hysteric bunch might have offered constructive criticism, because there’s some to be made, even though, as was clear, the movie’s not finished (there are sequences made up of stills; time codes remaining on some footage; a couple of segues that have yet been Gibneyfied).
A lot of viewers, including this one, seemed unaware that “Mr. Dynamite” was going to end, for all intents and purposes, in the mid-‘70s, a point at which Brown had already made a major impact on music and civil rights, and well before he turned into the train wreck he became in the years leading up to his death in 2006. That James Brown became better known for domestic abuse, gun charges and prison (he did a three-year stint beginning in 1988, although the charges – involving a high-speed chase, weapons possession and an assault on a police officer – have been deemed questionable), than he did with having made some of the more profoundly important music of his time, or influencing virtually every pop pretender who saw him perform. That would have been a different subject. And would have made for a different movie, a movie whose content would inevitably distract from the things Gibney is clearly out to celebrate, notably Brown’s importance as Soul Brother No. 1, and what he meant to black empowerment.
The director was asked about the film’s limited historical reach Sunday night, and answered by saying that his involvement with Brown – and, implicitly, the family that had evidently approved of the film – may not be finished when the movie is.
“We always thought that maybe there’d be a second part,” he said, adding that “by telling the whole story in a two-hour film, we’d skip a lot of the detail,” including layered performances, and of course, a good deal of unsavory history.
Not that Gibney seems out to whitewash James Brown, if you’ll excuse the atrocious pun. There is a rather fleeting reference to him beating women, an accusation confirmed by Al Sharpton, one of the Brown confidantes included in what is a rather rich parade of witnesses, either to Brown’s music or his character. The former include jazz bass virtuoso Christian McBride, whose presence is a bit of a puzzle until he starts analyzing what Brown was up to musically, especially in his “Cold Sweat” period. The latter include the longtime members of the James Brown review, such as saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and drummer Clyde Stubblefield, who are ever-charming, even as they recall Brown less winning qualities as a bandleader, or skinflint.
If one were to offer Gibney any actual input, it might include the suggestion that a transition is needed between Brown the Musical Innovator and Brown the Social Force; the leap from one to the other is abrupt. But heck, one audience member Sunday night told Gibney that his movie was already a landmark documentary that would be taught in schools (as well as, presumably, cure cancer and raise the dead). The director looked happily embarrassed. What it seemed to be at this point is a doc what will either teach people, or remind them – much the way the Harry Belafonte doc “Sing Your Song” did a couple of years ago – about an epic life and its critical importance to black and white history in America; a reminder of how important artists, entertainers and sports figures were in moving America beyond the Civil War — Donald Sterling notwithstanding.