Alex Gibney’s Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown doesn’t spend much time on the Godfather of Soul’s early years, but Brown’s early abandonment by both his mother and father, only to then be raised in a brothel by his Aunt Honey, seems to be the roiling undercurrent of every scene. Through the writer-director’s careful yet generous selection of archival footage and talking heads, these events seem to serve as the foundation for Brown’s inherent distrust and insurmountable pride, which both led him toward show business, not long after seeing Louis Jordan perform, and embrace a me-against-the-world attitude. Though he spent his late teens in prison for robbery, Brown went relatively quickly from buck dancing for change to fronting the Famous Flames, who backed his first major hits; the driving influence of his rampant need to entertain, and his eventual fame, is seen here as a mad dash away from the alienation, poverty, and starvation of his childhood.
The first half of Mr. Dynamite charts Brown’s movement from playing smaller gigs with the Flames on the “chitlin circuit” to his appearances in The T.A.M.I. Show and on The Ed Sullivan Show, career-defining moments that showcased his astonishing physical abilities to the masses. Gibney smartly details Brown’s ascension through interviews with the musicians who supported him while recording and touring, the people he would never admit he really depended on. At one point, Clyde Stubblefield, one of Brown’s longtime drummers, recalls getting hired by Brown, who omitted the fact that his band included four other drummers. Stubblefield goes on to describe how he immediately felt a need to eliminate the other drummers on the line in a pact with percussionist John “Jab’o” Starks. Stories like these—and there’s no short supply of them—speak to the air of competitiveness and cutthroat self-interest that Brown proffered within the band. Melvin Parker, yet another drummer, recounts a time he had to put a pistol in Brown’s face to stop him from punching his brother, saxophonist Maceo Parker, an injury that would have rendered Maceo unable to play and get paid. Other band mates, such as Martha High and Bootsy Collins, speak to Brown’s “tyrannical” sense of public image and professional paranoia, throwing down fines for unpolished shoes and pretending to sleep while traveling just to see if people were talking trash about him.
By juxtaposing these behind-the-scenes anecdotes with interviews with modern icons such as Al Sharpton and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Gibney neither flatters nor underestimates Brown’s legacy, and gets at the tough realities of being rich and African-American in the U.S. Brown’s increasing ego and fervent support of Nixon’s idea of “black capitalism,” which the former president used to secure the black vote and little more, put him at odds with many civil rights advocates who saw him, per one protest sign, as a “bought brother.” The film portrays Brown as a thoroughbred capitalist, an “I built it” kind of man much more fascinated by his own relevancy and market worth than systematic inequality and political correctness. And yet Brown is seen in televised interviews furiously shooting down David Susskind’s charge that African-Americans are pro-separatists because they don’t always sit with whites all the time, and chastising a young reporter for suggesting that he wants to be “accepted” by the white community.
The end result is a strikingly varied and substantial portrait of an intensely complex artist. Gibney avoids the cheap shots of drug addiction and criminal trespasses to depict a man stuck between belief in the America that allowed him to thrive and the one that’s worked diligently to ensure many other African-Americans can’t. And though we see images of picket lines and protests against the Brown that played Nixon’s inauguration ball, there’s never a sense that this perceived deceit made him a bad person, but rather a troubled man whose influence remains despite his belief that he did it all without anyone else’s help. Mr. Dynamite may finally be Gibney’s most psychologically and socially perceptive film to date, at once a refreshingly even-handed view of one of the great musical minds of the 20th century and a near-pathological study of the rise of modern conservative thinking, seen through one of its most unlikely yet dynamic supporters.