Overview: James Brown changed the face of American music forever. Charting his journey from rhythm and blues to funk, this documentary features rare and previously unseen footage, interviews and photographs, chronicling the musical ascension of “the hardest working man in show business,” from his first hit, “Please, Please, Please,” in 1956, to his iconic performances at the Apollo Theater, the T.A.M.I. Show, the Paris Olympia and more. Directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney and produced by Mick Jagger, the feature-length documentary was made with the unique cooperation of the Brown Estate, which opened its archives for the first time.
Abandoned by his parents at an early age, James Brown was a self-made man who became one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, not just through his music, but also as a social activist. In addition to extensive historical footage, including archival interviews with Brown himself, the film includes modern-day interviews with Mick Jagger, who remembers first seeing Brown perform from the balcony of the Apollo Theater; Rev. Al Sharpton, who met Brown at age 17 and considered him a father figure; band members Maceo Parker, Clyde Stubblefield, Melvin Parker, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, Martha High, Bootsy Collins and Fred Wesley; Danny Ray, Brown’s MC, who shrouded the singer with a cape onstage; Questlove, founder of and drummer for The Roots, and a disciple of Brown’s “on the one” rhythm; rapper Chuck D. of Public Enemy; jazz musician Christian McBride; and tour manager Alan Leeds, among others.
Expectations: Those who follow my reviews know that I lean towards the documentaries that focus on the social ills and downside of human behavior and not so much on the biographical kind. Well, this work will be an exception I think. I have always enjoyed the sound and persona of entertainer James Brown; though I am versed in his playlist I never had quite enough interest to seek out his biography. Now, I don’t need to because his story is now a part of my work. I trust it will be a solid piece due to the people involved in making this two-hour retrospective of Mr. Dynamite happen.
I’m looking forward to this piece filling in the gaps of what I have known of the entertainer regarding his background and place in society and to hopefully get a strong sense of the impact his musical presence has had on the industry. Plus, it looks like some good tunes are in store as well. So, as James Brown would sing -”Get up offa that thing” and watch MR. DYNAMITE: THE RISE OF JAMES BROWN. I’m going to right now.
Gut Reaction: I have to agree with what singer Martha High said about this documentary being the definitive look at the career of the “Godfather of Soul.” But, then again, it had the right combination of people behind the project so it should not be surprising. First of all I don’t think Mick Jagger would throw down money for just anything. He is a producer on this project because he himself was impressed and, perhaps influenced by Brown. Come on, can’t you see James Brown in Jagger’s swagger and posturing? Also this piece has Alex Gibney directing. In my opinion he is up there with Ken Burns as a documentarian.
The other factor that makes this documentary shine is the full cooperation of the Brown Estate. Though I am not clear exactly what footage the estate provided the full disclosure of items from the family added a valuable richness of the story. Without it we may have only gotten imagery that is out in the public media; the film is much richer with the family’s involvement and this documentary has it all. Photos and performance footage from a number of venues make this film come alive. It wouldn’t be complete without the ‘distressed’ artist slumping to the floor and the cape coming over his form. You see it here and don’t get tired of seeing it more than once.
The performances shown, like the Apollo shows and the testimony from musicians, backup singers, colleagues and historians make for one well-packaged documentary well worth the two-hour run. It went by fast and you clearly learn how one energetic performer blended big band, gospel and jazz and just rocked the world as he did it. His unique style is still felt.
Bonus: Here are two quotes from an HBO press release: Mick Jagger states,
“We had full access to amazing never-before-seen photos and video from James Brown’s estate, which Alex Gibney used brilliantly to tell the story of James’ career from its inception through its pinnacle. We spoke with the extraordinary people who knew James well and worked alongside him throughout his career. By hearing their fascinating stories and memories, we were able to paint the full picture of James as both a musical artist and social activist, whose legacy and impact on the music industry is ever-present.”
Alex Gibney states –
“When Mick Jagger (pictured) reached out to me to direct the documentary, we had a common goal in mind, to take the music of James Brown and put it into a larger historical context. As a musician, ‘Mr. Dynamite’ was the essential funk pioneer, a hugely influential figure and one of the greatest live performers – ever. Beyond his music, Brown’s cultural impact extends to the present day. Mick and his producing partner, Victoria Pearman, along with Peter Afterman from Inaudible and Blair Foster from Jigsaw, were wonderfully supportive and creative producers. We couldn’t be in better hands than with our friends at HBO.”
And what follows is a portion of an interview HBO had with the director Alex Gibney (pictured). Read it in its entirety at HBO.com.
HBO: How did you come to this topic? Were you already familiar with James Brown?
Alex Gibney: I was always interested in James Brown, but I was far from a James Brown expert. And then I got a call from Mick Jagger one day and he asked if I would be interested. The answer was an immediate “yes.”
HBO: Given that your subject was larger than life, how did you decide what to focus on?
AG: It took us a while to zero in on a focus, but ultimately, we focus on how he changed the culture. James Brown is a unique figure who takes music from the jazz-big band era to hip hop. So for us, that meant focusing on his rise. It seemed to make sense to stop right around 1974 when he was at his peak — “Payback” was his last really big hit — and then jump from there to his influence on hip hop.
HBO: The story’s starting point is James Brown answering the question, “What is soul music?”
AG: And he has a pretty profound answer because it relates to not only the music, but also to what drove him to try and be such a success. He says when you talk about “soul,” you talk about the word “can’t.” Basically he’s saying he’s focused on how people tell you [that] you can’t do certain things. It became a driver for him, the idea of taking “can’t” and turning it into “can.”
HBO: How did friends and former band mates feel about participating in the documentary?
AG: They were cautious initially. A lot of them have their own careers and don’t always want to be associated with the James Brown band, but still, it was a terribly important moment in their lives. So once they knew it wasn’t going to be superficial and we were going to give them the opportunity to say what they had to say, they jumped in. They really make the movie.
HBO: What was your process of selecting the footage that made it into the film?
AG: Every film you do that has this archival component, it’s always shoe leather work. There’s always stuff at the main archives, but the best stuff is always the unofficial material. We found a reel from the Boston concert that everyone thought was lost — only the audio existed. But we found it. We found lovely photographs of Mr. Brown at the Apollo that haven’t been seen before; a bunch from one of his managers; and the Brown family was very helpful. So it’s following leads. You just keep digging and asking. The last person you talk to, you ask if they know of anyone else and you follow that lead. Somebody says, “I’ll just go look in the back of the basement. I thought I remember something back there.” They go back, and sometimes they bring out something and your jaw just drops. Distilling down is the hard part. A 4-hour cut is not what anyone is interested in seeing, but we had all this great material. You shave and shave until you’ve got something. We were pretty determined from the get-go not to do a cradle-to-grave biography. We felt that would have been and exercise in stone skipping, too much surface and not enough soul.
HBO: Of the moments you uncovered, what are your favorites?
AG: I love the black-and-white concert footage we have in there. It shows the link from the big band era and throws forward to the funk era. You see the dynamism of his show back in the day. It just feels so polished and also so raw at the same time. He was the hardest working man in show business. On stage he really brought it.
HBO: There’s a moment in the documentary where Brown mentions he tried to read the market like a “stock man
AG: I think he liked to think of himself that way, as a kind of scientific entertainer that would deliver to people what they wanted. But I think there was also something more elemental in what he did that gave his music power. Sharpton says it well: His negatives became a positive. All the pain he suffered as a child, he ended up using to push him forward in his art. It gives his music the power that it has.
In Conclusion: I have only one thing left to say:
I feel good (da da daa dad a da daa); I knew that I would now. I feel good, I knew that I would; so good, (da! da!) so good…
The documentary debuted Monday, October 27 at 9:00pm ET. It can be seen on HBO on 10.30 at 9:00am and 5:30pm and 11.02 at 1:00pm, 11.04 at noon and 11.15 at 11:00pm. It also appears on HBO2 and on HBOGo.
Next Week: On Monday, 11.03 HBO offers an encore presentation about another entertainment icon – Marilyn Monroe in LOVE, MARILYN beginning at 4:45pm. It has already been reviewed.