2014 Alex Gibney (Director), Mr Dynamite: the Rise of James Brown, Jagged Films
As he lay dying in hospital, James Brown’s last words were reportedly ‘I’m going away tonight.’ Those four words register resignation, but also a note of shock. After all, who could have contemplated the possibility that a young black orphan who rose from the South with so little and who would go on to conquer the popular music world to the extent that he was able to shift the accent of the beat from the second count of the bar to the first count, ‘on the one;’ who, for a brief moment in time, had presidential hopefuls courting him; who managed to bridge the racial divide of his countrymen through the symbolic power of music; who tirelessly performed almost every night of the year; and who boldly proclaimed to the world that he felt ‘like being a sex machine,’ would succumb to a fate so mortal, so uneventful and messy, as death? Not even Brown himself, it seems.
Mr Dynamite: The Rise Of James Brown, a documentary by celebrated director Alex Gibney, invariably downplays Brown the man, but affirms Brown’s skills as an entertainer. When it comes to dealing with Brown’s personal history – the uncertain and difficult beginnings of a life dealt a poor hand, the experience of being raised by an aunt in a brothel, arrest for petty theft, youth unemployment, institutional racism, and, almost certainly, emotional and physical abuse – rather than explore these issues head on, they are relegated to footnote status. Gibney, to his credit, attempted to arrange the archival material consisting of interviews with Brown’s music associates, industry figures, including Mick Jagger and writer Greg Tate, footage of live performances, and historic footage of civil rights clashes, into a shape from which a reliable portrait of Brown could emerge, and though interesting and sometimes thought provoking, the end result raises more questions than it does answers.
What impact did the death of Brown’s son have upon his creativity? How does one reconcile Brown’s Midas touch on stage and his microscopic attention to detail in the studio with his uneven experiments in national politics and the failure of the multiple business ventures he dabbled in? Why was it difficult, as claimed by one interviewee, for him to form trusting and loving relationships? And so on.
Despite the colossal success he enjoyed in the 1960s and early 70s, Brown’s personal life was marked by discontent, bouts of rage and inner turmoil, the legacy of a broken home and the structural inequalities that were inescapable for every child born to black parents in the 20th century. An account of how he was able to overcome these handicaps is, over the course of 120 minutes, overshadowed by the focus on his brilliant showmanship: by the explosive and dramatic movement of torso and limbs gyrating in furious sympathy with the thunderous beat of the kick drum, crashing down on the first count of the bar, the downbeat, with such jarring effect, that all earthly considerations are blasted off the stage.
To be fair, it’s vastly difficult to get down to the nitty gritty of a biography through the hot medium of film, a form better adapted to showing rather than telling. But the limitations of the genre is not a sufficient excuse for shying away from the expectation created by the documentary’s subtitle: The Rise of James Brown. Without a decent explanation of Brown’s emotional and social formation, instead of a credible account of the psychosocial drive behind one of the most innovative showmen of the modern age, we are left with a vacuum, a swirling vortex of question marks, ready to be filled with whatever imaginative impulse the viewer can conjure up in the moment. In the twilight between reality and fiction, Brown the man slips behind the mask of the performer, Soul Brother Number One, and we find ourselves set adrift in the irrational realm of hero worship.
Where the documentary succeeds though, is when it draws into sharp focus the brilliance of Brown’s stagecraft as well as the evolution of his sound, affirming his skill as an entertainer, if not his abilities as an innovator. This is done quite effectively through the presentation of slow motion and normal speed footage of Brown’s moves, gestures, verbal and visual cues on stage and in the studio, highlighting the stunning level of discipline and control he was able to exercise over the presentation of his show and the performance of his music.
What this documentary makes particularly apparent, is that the full realisation of the James Brown sound, the apotheosis of the hard driving down beat he had cultivated in the late 1960s was achieved by the replacement of his backing band with younger and hungrier musicians who brought a harder and looser edge to his sound. With the introduction of the young Collins brothers in the early 1970s, one can’t help but wonder whether the sacking of his former band was a deliberate strategy to reinvigorate his sound.
William ‘Bootsy’ Collins on bass and Phelps ‘Catfish’ Collins on rhythm and lead guitar are arguably cofounders of funk, which must be said, was as much an expression of youthful confidence ushered in by the politics of black power, as it was about the music. The departure of the Collins brothers a little less than a year later ultimately signalled the end of James Brown’s most fertile creative period and essentially the stalling of his career as a musical innovator. From thence forward he repeated himself, ad infinitum, becoming something of a crass caricature of his former self.
The documentary concludes with a review of his influence on hip hop artists in the 1980s and beyond, especially Public Enemy, and the institutional sampling of ‘Funky Drummer.’ Brown’s arrest and jail time in the 1990s is entirely ignored.
The cinema screen is the perfect medium for presenting a larger than life artist like James Brown to audiences, new and old. So although this documentary is worthy of another look if it comes to enjoy limited local release in Australian theatres, it will not translate as well onto home cinema. Though that will not stop James Brown fans from getting their hands on a copy, digital or otherwise. ✏️