One of my favorite uses of faint praise to damn a mediocre performance is “He don’t stop no show.” That could never be used against James Brown as the new documentary, “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,” demonstrates on HBO.
From the first time he slides onto the stage by wiggling one patent leather shoe back and forth, you are reminded that this is the man who created it all. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear how the threads of the blues, R & B, soul, jazz, funk and rock are all tied together by the cord connected to his microphone and by the life he led.
Director Alex Gibney does a masterful job of using Brown’s performances and hit songs as a soundtrack to his life and our times. Brown croons “Georgia” as the narration reveals his hardscrabble early life when both parents abandoned him and he was sent to live with an aunt who ran a whorehouse.
Later “It’s A Man’s World” underpins the story of how Brown flew to Jackson, Mississippi to perform after James Meredith was shot. He sings “If I Ruled The World,” as the film tells how his show in Boston after Martin Luther King was assassinated was broadcast live on public television and kept the city calm. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” is credited with changing the consciousness of an entire generation of young people.
While Brown is the star, the rich anecdotes from Bobby Byrd and the backing musicians (Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, Clyde Stubblefield, Fred Wesley, Melvin Parker, John Jabo Stark) and his Cape Man, Danny Ray, offer insights into the man and his music.
Ellis talks about how Brown came in with a song idea but all he did was grunt. “My job was to take those grunts and make music.” The result was “Cold Sweat.” Melvin Parker talks about pulling a gun on Brown to keep him from hitting Maceo in the mouth. They all talk about how tightfisted he was but recalled fondly how his ruthless discipline (he would flash fines for missed notes live on stage) made them into the amazing band they became.
The historic footage from “The Tammy Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Mike Douglas Show” and “Soul Train” is worth the price of admission (or the monthly HBO fee). As is the duet he does with Hubert Humphrey at a campaign rally in 1968 or the performance at the Nixon inaugural ball.
At one point, Brown talked about shining shoes as a kid for pennies in front of a radio station in Augusta, Georgia. “Now I own it.” For Brown it was about the show and the business.