Director: Alex Gibney
HBO/Universal Music Group
Alex Gibney’s great skill as documentary-maker – apart from his speed and ability to work on several projects simultaneously – is in unearthing the hard-to-find/previously-unseen footage. Here with his “Dynamite” profile of the making of James Brown it would be a good film if all it had to show were the dozens of barely seen before clips, hard to find shows and near-mythical performances – but Gibney and crew know what to do with this footage. They’ve also been able to get to all the surviving sidemen and key associates – so slowly, surely, we get a picture of Brown the man and the hardships he overcame and then the music – and particularly its evolution from a feel-good rock’n’roll-meets-rhythm’n’blues to a more sinewy, aggressive and progressive proto-funk, political and straight out of the blocks swinging.
Gibney’s credentials in fact make him perfect for addressing this difficult talent – he’s made movies about despicable characters who have impressed with their achievements (Lance Armstrong), he’s made movies about supreme musical talents who were also difficult personalities (Frank Sinatra, Fela Kuti), he’s been able to infiltrate worlds (Scientology) and explain politics and music and now the cross-threads.
The key though is in that subtitle – this is about The Making of James Brown, which means our focus is the ascent. We hear from the likes of Maceo Parker and Clyde Sutbblefield about Brown’s legendary toughness – he’d flash his hands in the direction of a player on stage and that would be the fine-count, going up in fives, for botched intros, outros or lags. He would call individual players out on stage. The attention paid to Brown’s hair and clothes and shoes and dance-moves was just a part of the puzzle. Swimming around in that mess of a head was a knowledge of all of the music, every part every player had to play – his singing and dancing was him conducting the music as well as conveying it.
And through it all we get glimpses of the tyrant – the Hardest Working Man in Show Business – and the great singer, dancer, musician and band-leader, the king of soul and funk. His chief crime might have been a lack of empathy, an inability to understand that if he was the best and hardest working that meant others might struggle to keep up with him. He demanded a stage filled with versions of himself – and as we know from so much of that incredible music and the great talent he fostered he came damn close.
Not that this excuses his terrible actions but Gibney is able to point to the flaws in the man – and how he knew his troubles ran generationally deep. The Rev. Al Sharpton recalls Brown telling him to never hit a woman, reminding him that Brown comes “from generations of that. It’s wrong”. Brown appeared to know – at least some of – his faults and flaws. He couldn’t better himself, perhaps his aim then became to constantly better the music. This doesn’t ever excuse the violence – but shows the psychological scars the perpetrator carried.
What Mr. Dynamite does well – so well – is provide a context for Brown’s musical genius, it isn’t even concerned with explanation, rather examples. And anyone interested in music should acknowledge James Brown as the force on black music across the 20th Century and into the 21st; as one of the crucial factors on pop music – and then, too, with its spokesperson becoming a political voice and force.
Brown may well have been a mess of a man – but it’s nice to see a music documentary focus on the music without trying to hide the fact that this was a man of (and caught in) duality.
Mr. Dynamite is one of Gibney’s very best films and the best examination of James Brown I’ve seen. It almost – almost – makes me forget that horrible biopic.