James Brown: Mr. Dynamite - The Rise of James Brown
Directed by Alex Gibney
James Brown changed the face of American music forever. 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. Charting his journey from rhythm and blues to funk, MR. DYNAMITE: THE RISE OF JAMES BROWN features rare and previously unseen footage, photographs and interviews, 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.
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★★★★ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd
With Chadwick Boseman's performance of his career bringing the Soul Brother No.1 to life in Get On Up, Alex Gibney's documentary takes us as close as we'll ever get to the man himself. This isn't a warts-an-all expose of James Brown, it has passed through his family's estate after all, nonetheless it is an insightful look at his music and the determination that drove him to creative heights.
Gibney lays it out in a typical biog structure, quickly covering Brown's poor childhood, abandonment by his parents, mid-teen prison sentence and redemption in the bosom of Bobby Byrd's family. The very first shot of the film is Brown in concert and Gibney continues to pack in live footage, a lot of it never seen before, reminding us just dynamic and ground-breaking his music was. We also hear about his early jazz influences and the two week period standing in for Little Richard that helped him perfect the most soulful scream ever heard on record.
Musically it concentrates on two decades, from the mid-fifties with The Flames to his - as drummer Questlove calls it - seventies moustache period. A multitude of talking heads, many of them key members of his band add their anecdotes and sharp details about life on the road and in the studio with the hard taskmaster. Brown's reputation for fining band members, withholding payments and not passing on the credit for his sound all comes under the spotlight. Of course, these elements of his life are less magnified than others but it is to Gibney's credit that he doesn't allow the film to completely sanctify its subject, at least not as a person anyway.
Those who were just as important in forging Brown's brand new funk sound are thankfully given ample time to contribute too. Pee Wee Ellis, Maceo Parker, Clyde Stubblefield, Fred Wesley, Bootsy Collins, John “J'abo” Starks are all present and correct, breaking down particular tracks, recalling the tireless work put into working for the man. A fair amount of time is spent covering his peak from the late 60's to the early 70's, which was also the period when he become far more politically motivated through the civil rights movement. In the long run he had his fingers burnt by Nixon and co but it is hard to deny he was a hugely positive role model for young black America when no other seemed to be as vocal.
Watching James Brown live was always a mesmerising experience, he proudly wore the title of The Hardest Working Man In Show Business and his tireless touring proved him worthy of it. There is a feeling that his impact and influence on modern music has still not been fully appreciated, so it is a pleasure to see a documentary that encapsulates some of his magic. In a world full of fly by night music stars, Mr. Dynamite is a reminder of what a legend truly is about.
★★★★ review by Gibnerd on Letterboxd
Alex Gibney paints a portrait of a man who was The Hardest Working Man in Showbiz but also may have been a bit of an asshole. the fact that the doc isn't afraid to show the rather unpleasent and confusing sides of James Brown's personality is rather refreshing. Balancing that is rare and raw footage of just how much of a master showman Brown was and just what he meant to people in the turbulent late 1960s. It's always harder to embrace a documentary that focuses on a person's who character isn't spotless but Gibney in the end lets the music and the legacy do most of the talking.
★★★★ review by Jeremy Milks on Letterboxd
James Brown famously used to "fine" his bandmates on stage if they missed a beat, a note, a break, anything. There's incredible footage in here of Brown, mid-song, flicking his fingers at specific band members. How many times he flicked meant how big the fine was by 5 dollar increments. Guys would lose their whole nightly salary at the flick of a finger if Brown felt they were lacking. The audience thought it was just a dance move. It's funny, but there's also a real dark side to Brown that this doc doesn't shy away from. Like stuff that would end the career of any entertainer if it was done today. It's a "warts and all" doc that gives Brown a fair deal, highlighting his split persona of civil rights activist and hardened capitalist who supported Nixon. One of the highlights is Brown blowing every band off the stage at the TAMI show in the 60's and Mick Jagger laughing about it nowadays, admitting that no one could touch Brown, then or now. The doc only goes into the 70's, but that's probably for the best.
★★★★ review by Kurosawa on Letterboxd
As told by surviving band members and associates this is a fascinating doc about the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number 1, the Godfather of Soul, Mr Dynamite himself, James Brown; an arrogant, jealous, tyrannical, ambitious, untrusting, ruthless, dynamic, intelligent, inspirational righteous and self-righteous cultural icon and leader of one (well two technically) of the greatest musical acts in popular music.
I think this is a must see for anyone interested in pop music and/or US racial socio-economic history.
★★★½ review by Hoytoid on Letterboxd
Needs to be about 3X longer.
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