Alex Gibney's documentary, Mr. Dynamite, limns the extraordinary rise of James Brown's career, and more: Interviews with his sidemen give a history of rhythm and blues, and race. Mick Jagger talks about coming to the Apollo to see James Brown and trying to simulate, and surpass, the legendary performer's signature moves. Jazz musicians Fred Wesley and Christian McBride reveal the many ways that Brown's unique talent and professional ethics transformed the music, how the theatrics of putting on a cape near the end of the act -- borrowing from the world of boxing -- would lead to an encore, and how subbing for Little Richard on tour, styling himself with that makeup and adapting from his sound, led to Brown's scream. Many who appear in the film were on hand for a premiere at the Time Warner Center on Monday night, including Mr. Wesley, Mr. McBride, Martha High who tells how James Brown changed her name, and the Reverend Al Sharpton.
The documentary does not shy away from Brown's horrendous behavior toward women. As the Reverend Al Sharpton so eloquently put it in his interview, Brown cautioned him, don't be like me. Don't beat women. Also, Al Sharpton told about trading off stories of a difficult childhood, Sharpton saying his father abandoned him. Brown one-upped him with "I was abandoned by both my mother and my father, and grew up in a whorehouse." Many attribute this childhood the cause of his keeping a cool distance from his band, and being much of a loner. In a clip from Dinah Shore's television show, Brown says he always has his shoeshine kit on his mind, to remind him that no matter how successful he becomes, he came from the ghetto.
Brown's politics, including his endorsement of Humphrey for president, complete with singing a duet with the candidate, show his insistence on attempting to forge his own stance based on what's best for the country. A brilliant assemblage of carefully archived material, Mr. Dynamite never skimps on Brown's sound as it evolves, which is why this film, to air on HBO, is one of the most entertaining music films of the year.
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