For a documentary devoted to the hardest working man in show business, “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” delivers a rather by-the-numbers, uninspired portrait. Produced by, among others, Mick Jagger, who also lent his star power to birthing the recent Brown biopic “Get On Up,” director Alex Gibney’s take is most memorable for its generous use of early and unseen performance footage, but beyond the fancy footwork on display, the project, bloated at a full two hours, seldom gets under its subject’s flashy veneer.
Working in cooperation with the Brown estate (he died in 2006, at age 73), Gibney has woven together all kinds of rare clips of Brown onstage and from talkshows, while interviewing a wide assortment of artists who knew and worked with the Godfather of Soul. That includes Jagger, who has acknowledged the singer’s influence on his own work, and relates a story about seeing him from the balcony at the Apollo Theater, sitting next to an older lady smoking a very large joint.
Yet while “Mr. Dynamite” conveys Brown’s explosive and theatrical qualities as an entertainer, a man and an activist, the movie seems to cry out for more independent voices — third parties able to provide context regarding his place in musical history. Nor does the biographical aspect exhibit much coherence, basically skipping a significant chunk of Brown’s later life and death.
What emerges, then, is the tale of how Brown pulled himself up from poverty to become a hugely successful performer, first on the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” — playing to black audiences across the South during the Jim Crow era — before finding a way to cross over. A closing section also illustrates just how hugely influential Brown’s style was, as witnessed through clips of Prince, Michael Jackson and the various hip-hop acts who liberally sampled his songs, “Funky Drummer” in particular.
Of all the footage, the most arresting involves a Brown concert in Boston the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Several members of the crowd began jumping onto the stage, prompting police to drive them back. Brown calmly intervened, addressing the anger of the protesters, asking for respect, then just as coolly launching back into his set.
Gibney also deals with Brown’s unexpected endorsement of Richard Nixon in that year’s presidential election, which — given his work in the civil-rights movement — clearly cost the singer support within the African-American community.
Ultimately, though, “Mr. Dynamite” winds up feeling like an authorized product or extended DVD extra, one overly enamored with its access to this treasure-trove of archived material. Brown certainly earned his Godfather nickname, and the clips will leave fans feeling good. That said, for those more casually acquainted with Brown’s work, this HBO presentation is an offer they can refuse.