During the doc’s jam-packed two hours, we track Brown through his hardscrabble birth in rural Georgia– where his father stripped trees for turpentine and he was raised in his aunt’s whorehouse–through his peak of fame during the Nixon years.
Early in the film, Brown accentuates the positive, talking about the meaning of soul. For him, it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s what you can do. “The abandonment early on left a deep scar on him,” Gibney told me the phone. “He was abandoned by both his mother and father, and he was determined to show them that they were wrong, he was determined to be the one who could. He was a can-do guy. All that pain becomes the focus for his art. It destabilized him as a person. We show how messed up he was. His relations with his girlfriends were clearly abusive. But in terms of how he focused and channeled it into his art, his past was a positive.”
The Reverend Al Sharpton, who was close to Brown and functioned as his de facto manager, offers such valuable insights. “Nobody else else had just spent so much time with him, ” says Gibney. “He sees both sides of him, he’d treat him both as the Reverend and as his adopted son. He wouldn’t tell real stuff to his adopted son, but he’d talk to the Reverend about very real stuff.”
Throughout our interview, Gibney refers to the singer and bandleader as “Mr. Brown.” It was a form of respect that Brown himself demanded–and which media personality David Susskind did not give him during a painful Mike Douglas show when he kept calling the R & B star “Jimmy.” “You ought to be as good as me,” he says to Brown, who lashes back, “I AM as good as you!” You can see the steam coming out of Brown’s ears as he considers walking off–but he stays put. Gibney’s researchers dug into the Richard Nixon archive tapes to find the president saying nasty things about his publicly friendly relationship with Neo-Conservative Brown, like: “No more black stuff.”
Gibney covers the biographical high points of Brown’s life, taking us through the turbulent Civil Rights era in which Brown played a crucial role–he pushed the “I’m black and I’m proud” mantra to a generation of African-Americans who were inspired when even pomaded Mr. Dynamite went natural. “It was huge,” Gibney says. “It can’t be overstated. That song in and of itself was enormous and lifted everyone up, it’s rare. We decided that the film is about how James Brown
changes the culture.”
The movie focuses on Brown’s pivotal impact on American music. “It was a gas for me,” says Gibney. “I’ve used Mr. Brown’s music in a lot of my films, but I don’t consider myself an expert at all. It was great to hear musicians talk about how the music evolved. We stumbled on certain insights, which is what making docs is all about. We wouldn’t be talking about James Brown if it wasn’t for the music.”
Jagger and Gibney realized that Brown singlehandedly takes music all the way from big band jazz through R & B and soul to funk and hip hop. “He’s the one person who has the lifeline,” says Gibney. “That’s Brown. This is a guy who’s making the culture. How often does that happen? We structured it as a musical. Sometimes his songs tell the story. Mick Jagger said he was really a bandleader. So we went back to connecting him to the Big Band era, with Duke Ellington footage.”
Gibney shows how Ellington and Brown both pumped their fists to the beat–as arrangers they know what’s coming. “We follow his rise and that ends in a big way in ’74, as we leap ahead to hip hop and that huge tectonic shift,” says Gibney. “Maybe someday we’ll do Part Two. This seems like a good place to stop.”
The film shows the musical growth of Brown from his early days with his closest friend and bandmate Bobby Bird, using a clip from a concert in 1971 showing Brown and Bird having fun with each other on stage. “Through that we know how close they were and we show how they got to know each other through the Famous Flames,” Gibney says. “I felt free to violate the strict chronology to tell the story we wanted to tell.” At his start on the Chitlin Circuit, Brown filled in for rising star Little Richard on dates that he couldn’t fulfill. “He literally was Little Richard,” says Gibney. “Most people didn’t recognize him, they didn’t have TV, he was impersonating him. That’s where he learned how to scream!”
Jagger was an early Brown fan, sitting in the balcony at the Apollo Theater. They both performed on the infamous 1964 T.A.M.I. Show (see clip below). Behind the scenes, Jagger had to talk Brown out of being upset that he didn’t close the show–and then had to follow up his incredible performance! (He insists that there were different audiences for each show.) You can see how much Jagger learned from Brown–about how to engage an audience–and those foot-skittering dance moves.
“Mick was great connecting with the story,” says Gibney. “He was a part of it. Brown would do like 6 or 7 shows a day, and Mick would watch them all, sit back there with all the housewives smoking dope. Thanks to Mick, while ‘The T.A.M.I. SHow’ has been much seen, he was able to get inside it in a way that made you feel it a bit more, even the bit with the cape. James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, they’d throw the cape over him to protect him, he was throwing so much into the song.”
More from Mick Jagger on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Brown relied on his talented team of gifted jazz musicians, who loathed him for being mean and demanding. At one point he had five drummers: in a battle of the drums, two managed to win out by driving the others away. It’s fun to watch how under Brown, the vamp became a song in itself instead of a thing you just did between other things.
Bandleader Pee Wee Ellis explains how he interpreted a series of grunts from Brown to come up with “Cold Sweat” and its bass, guitar and horn lines inspired by Miles Davis’s “So What?” “Way back in the day, Mr. Brown was radically sampled by all these hip hop artists, to his great displeasure,” says Gibney. “It was cool to see it come full circle.”
Needless to say, the always prolific Gibney is juggling several projects at various stages of completion, from Sinatra and Joplin biodocs to several political investigations. “I’ll take a page out of Laura Poitras’s book and talk about them when they’re ready,” he says. For the record he’s a fan of both “CITIZENFOUR” (our Poitras interview here) –he knows something about NSA spying from “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks”— as well as the fictional James Brown film “Get on Up,” starring Chadwick Boseman.
So am I–Boseman gets Brown right–but as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing like the real thing, below.
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