The two-hour documentary premiering Monday on HBO, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, chronicles the career of the Godfather of Soul, from his ascension in music at the height of the social revolution of the 1960s through his impact on hip-hop and pop music.
Filmmaker Alex Gibney begins and ends this fine documentary with an iconic performance by Brown’s second major band, with Bootsy Collins on bass, at Olympia Hall in Paris in 1971, midway through Brown’s most influential period. The rhythmic force that was his musical signature is heard on “Soul Power” as Brown explains the meaning of “soul music.” Having to live with the word “can’t” and “the extra hard knocks of the black man” are at the root, he says.
As he sings “Georgia” at the same show, his early life is given mythic resonance through images of a lone ramshackle house in the South, accompanied by text that gives the outline of his early life: After Brown, who appeared to be stillborn, was brought back to life by an aunt breathing into his lungs, his mom abandoned him when he was 4. His father, an uneducated laborer, took him from “turpentine country” when he was 6, the two of them walking 40 miles from Barnwell, S.C., to Augusta, Ga.
At age 9 he went to stay with an aunt who ran a bordello. He sang and “buck-danced” for soldiers, shined shoes and hustled johns to the house of prostitution. Al Sharpton later recounts that Brown once told him he’d see churchwomen who would sell their bodies by day and go home to cook dinner for their husbands by 5 p.m.
The seeds of Brown’s distrust of people and his violence against women were sown early. But the intersection of music and the rising movement for black pride and liberation is the main focus of the film. After serving five years in jail for a robbery, Brown, now age 20, was welcomed into the home of bandleader Bobby Byrd. Brown joined the group, and soon his earthy, gospel-infused sound make clear that he was the star.
Brown’s early influences—Louis Jordan, Duke Ellington, Little Richard, Hank Ballard—are discussed by cultural critic Greg Tate and bassist Christian McBride, who paint a picture of Brown as well grounded in both popular music and classic jazz by black artists of the 1940s and ’50s. The Roots’ drummer Questlove and writer Michael Veal add insightful commentary throughout. Questlove, on tambourine, demonstrates black church grooves, accompanied by the funk accents of Brown’s drummer Clyde Stubblefield, which leads to Veal’s explanation of Brown’s concept of playing on “the one.”
From the 1930s to the 1950s, when jazz was more popular, rhythmic emphasis was on the 2 and 4 of a 4/4 pattern. James Brown got down on the one, and much of black American music changed course from the smoother R&B of early Motown artists such as Smokey Robinson. Brown’s thrilling ability as a dancer and his theatrical flair—dropping to one knee in passionate agony, being escorted offstage after being covered by a silk cape—was a key to his appeal. Having a slamming band was another.
Thanks to accounts from Mick Jagger (a producer of the documentary), Brown’s former tour manager Alan Leeds, and band members Melvin Parker, Stubblefield, Danny Ray, John “Jobo” Stark, Martha High, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley, we hear how Brown and his ensemble rose from playing the black chitlin circuit to have hits like “Please, Please, Please”; make the classic 1962 recording Live at the Apollo, Vol. I; and continue all the way to “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and the May 1, 1966, appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which signaled Brown’s crossover success.
The film’s depiction of Brown’s tough approach to band discipline, lackadaisical attitude toward paying the band and tendency to be a distrustful loner adds dimension to a complex personality. The paradox of his support for Richard Nixon—though explained in the film as resulting from Brown’s allegiance to a self-help attitude reflected in the song “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself)”—is still a mystery. Why would someone like Brown—so distrustful as a result of his harsh youth—trust a politician like Nixon?
But Brown’s contradictions in no way reduce his obvious genius as a musical innovator, taking gospel and R&B through soul to funk, reframing the rhythmic beat, giving vamps more prominence, recording studio albums as if they were live concerts and even taking the funk from the drums to the electric bass in his later period. And though the film fails to mention his 1969 recording with the Louis Bellson Orchestra, Soul on Top, it does show how he maintained a jazz sensibility underneath the funk, both in his instrumentation and in songs like “Cold Sweat.”
Saxophonist Ellis explains how the song evolved when Brown came to him with the bass-line groove. Ellis thought of Miles Davis’ “So What” and had that melody in mind when he added the horn section’s riffs. Once the contrasting guitar licks were added—another hit.
Other than the music, what comes across most clearly in Mr. Dynamite is Brown’s commitment to advancing the fortunes of black people while standing up for himself as a black man. Unlike some artists, he spoke about and performed at movement events. Still chilling is Brown’s performance in Boston after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. When black youths started to come onto the stage, police began pushing them off. Brown told all of them—the police and the young people—to chill out, but he did it in a way that allowed the music to continue, without the rioting then occurring across the nation. James Brown said it loud: He was black and proud.