From the iconic soul singer who told African-Americans around the world to “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud),” who pleaded for love in “Please, Please, Please,” and made everyone “Get On The Good Foot,” it’s surprising to hear The Hardest Working Man In Show Business himself open up the documentary “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise Of James Brown” by describing soul music with a single word: “Can’t.” It’s the word African-Americans of his generation were used to hearing, with their struggle for equality, a key ingredient to the power of the music Brown and his contemporaries eventually crossed over to mainstream American and white radio. And certainly for Brown—abandoned by both his mother and father at a young age, and raised by his brothel owning Aunt—”can’t” would’ve been a familiar word for someone who, myth has it, arrived stillborn into this word, and was miraculously saved with the breath of human life. ‘Mr. Dynamite’ is a sizzling tribute to Brown’s determination not to be defined by “can’t,” a journey which saw him become a music legend.
Directed by the perhaps overly prolific Alex Gibney (this is his fourth documentary in two years), ‘Mr. Dynamite’ suffers from its traditional structure and likely the need to cater to the wishes of the Brown Estate, who assisted the filmmakers with the production. As the title suggests, the focus on the doc is essentially on Brown’s glory years, right up until the ’80s. And so, if you’re looking for anything about his dalliances outside marriage and his numerous children, his infamous, punishing studio temperament (which is briefly explored and mostly justified because he was a musical genius), or allegations of abuse (glossed over with close friend Reverend Al Sharpton sharing an anecdote that Brown told him he knew it was wrong), this won’t be the warts-and-all portrait you might be seeking. Instead, this is a celebration of his many musical accomplishments, and it’s hard to deny it’s wickedly entertaining stuff.
Indeed, all one has to do is watch any vintage footage of Brown performing in his prime, and you instantly recognize the enormity of his skill and talent. A fiercely committed live performer, the treasure trove of archival material is the true heart of ‘Mr. Dynamite.’ Watching him absolutely tear up “The T.A.M.I. Show,” drop America’s jaws on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” or make people sweat with his Apollo Theater revue, is awe inspiring. Brown didn’t need pyrotechnics or gimmicks—he provided all the fireworks necessary with an unbelievable ability to dance, coupled with a voice that could evoke heartbreak, lust, and unalloyed joy, sometimes all at once. A showman, bandleader, and musical craftsman all at once, ‘Mr. Dynamite’ provides a true appreciation—particularly in this era of choreographed, and heavily organized arena concerts—for Brown’s ability to read a crowd, improvise, and put on the best damn show anyone was likely to see. Simply, Brown wanted to be the best, and he achieved an untouchable status, but not without surrounding himself with young musicians that would go on to their own influential and important careers.
From teaming up with Bobby Byrd and forming The Famous Flames, to roping in talents like brothers Maceo and Melvin Parker, Clyde Stubblefield, Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley, and more (all of whom lend their memories and anecdotes), Brown may not have been able to read sheet music, but he had an undeniable ear for who could bring the funk and execute his vision. But as ‘Mr. Dynamite’ makes clear, Brown was not an easy man to work with, he was a demanding singer who set the bar of expectation very, very high. You either jumped in with both feet or quickly found yourself another gig. Brown’s musical vision was not pulled out of thin air. Drawing on the influence of Louis Jordan, Little Richard, and Duke Ellington, Brown rolled their talent and sense of style into one package (one surprising story has it that Brown did a brief run of early tour dates pretending to be Richard himself), and the cape routine, presided over by longtime MC Danny Ray? That’s a bit he borrowed from wrestler Gorgeous George.
But perhaps the most revelatory moments of ‘Mr. Dynamite’ have little to do with Brown’s already sanctified position in music history. Rather, it’s his politics, and the Brown Estate has to be credited a bit hear for letting this kind of stuff slip into the documentary that counts Mick Jagger (an admitted Brown fan and disciple) among the producers. What folks may be surprised to know is that while Brown very openly and passionately support the Civil Rights struggle, and was keenly aware of the battles black Americans still faced, he was also quite conservative. In fact, Brown was a Nixon supporter, and moreover, he was very much a believer in pulling yourself up from your own bootstraps, no matter what systemic disadvantages may in the way. This is evidenced by Brown’s very funky, very clearly titled “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open up the Door I’ll Get It Myself),” a sentiment that doesn’t address that not everyone is born with the singer’s unique gifts or ability and resources to rise out of their station. But this is a minor sour note from a man who usually found himself right alongside those battling for equality, and even when things in the black community threatened to boil over, the respect that Brown commanded allowed him the ability to calm tensions. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., as riots erupted across the country, Brown is credited with keeping calm in Boston by sticking to a scheduled tour date, and at one point, even ordering an audience bordering on rowdiness to calm down, adding that he expected better from them. This footage, included in the documentary, is simply extraordinary, as you can feel the momentum and emotional balance tipping back and forth as Brown restores order.
As ‘The Rise Of James Brown’ closes, it skips over his dodgier years of the ’80s and ’90s, and moves ahead to Brown’s influence on future generations, particularly in the world of hip hop, which used his funky breaks to create new music. And that’s really what Gibney’s doc celebrates, the enduring legacy of Brown’s music, and it’s sensational ability to still thrill to this day with a power and potency that is largely undiminished. While it’s a doc that certainly could’ve used more texture, and sometimes races along like a cinematic Wikipedia entry, Gibney accomplishes his task at hand, showing exactly why Brown has had the ability to “stay on the scene” for decades, and likely decades to come. [B]
“Mr. Dynamite: The Rise Of James Brown” airs tonight on HBO at 9 PM.