TV Review: ‘Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown’

mr dynamite The Rise of James
HBO

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.

TV Review: 'Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown'

(Documentary; HBO, Mon. Oct. 27, 9 p.m.)

Production

Produced by Jagged Films in association with Inaudible Films, Imagine Entertainment and Jigsaw Prods.

Crew

Executive producers, Alex Gibney, Dan Brooks, Mike Singer, Eric Weider; producers, Mick Jagger, Victoria Pearman, Peter Afterman, Blair Foster; co-producer, Trevor Davidoski; director, Gibney; camera, Maryse Alberti, Antonio Rossi; editors, Geeta Gandbhir, Maya Mumma; music supervisor, Margaret Yen. 120 MIN.

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  1. sussieqt says:

    Brian Lowery couldn’t have watched this documentary. This was by far the best James Brown documentary that I’ve seen.

  2. Mr. Dynamite, “The Rise of James Brown was a treasure among treasures when it comes to a documentary of an individual of the entertainment world. It told of a man that in those times tried (sometimes stumbled) to be an extraordinary example to all people. Look at that era for people of color and think to try to do what he did…Stand as a man believing and having faith in all people but definitely conscious of the plight of his own race; The film contained and conveyed some of this material. There could have always been more but that man lived a life that would have to be spoon feed to viewers in segments it was so vast. This was informative and entertaining…It spared a lot of the indignation the man suffered but what story gets told that can afford to tell it exactly like it is, taking all the blinders off and exposing all? I enjoyed it and wish to thank the produces for their efforts. Out of 5 stars being the best ..I give it a strong 4…It had content for everyone

  3. MrsMiller says:

    Wow! Are you kidding??? I thought it was fantastic! I watched twice. Back-to-back. Yes, 4 hours straight. I plan to watch it again. Might even watch it back-to-back again. It was that good.

  4. Edith Grove says:

    What bit Brian Lowry to deserve such a dull review? I can’t even imagine we watched the same film. I’m with DataScopic – I could have watched more. This felt like a real musician’s take on a musician’s musician. Which is so much more exciting than another dull list of ‘what a person was really like.’ We love him for his music, and learning how that came about was gold. Lighten up Lowry. This was a cut above.

  5. DataScopic says:

    I’ve watched the show 3 times and have thoroughly enjoyed it–and learned from it.

    I appreciate that it focused on James brown as a musician and activist and didn’t get into the sordid aspects of his life. That’s been done enough through other outlets. I didn’t want any more of that. Clint Eastwood’s “Bird” painted Charlie Parker like a heroin addict who happened to play saxophone. Gladly, Mr. Dynamite didn’t turn into a similar grotesque spectacle.

    As a musician myself, I liked hearing how Bootsy’s presence changed the rhythm section, and how Pee Wee took the gig as an opportunity to finance his bigger dreams. It was nice to hear what Pee Wee claims to be the first recorded funk composition, and why.

    The movie does end at an entirely appropriate place: the waning of James Brown as a MUSICIAN and mention of the young musicians who were influenced by him.

    It’s fun to hear the music I grew up with and learn what the musicians went through to create that music. So, it wasn’t bloated, to me. I’d welcome 2 more hours. Not 2 hours of the old man and legal troubles either. I want 2 more hours of Fred, Bootsy, Clyde, Maceo, Melvin Jab, Pee Wee, Bobby, and the others telling what it took to make that music that, in 2014, I love to play really loud in my car.

  6. Arnie says:

    Correction:

    And though you grudgingly allowed as to how effective the performance clips were, you were, over all, downright ornery vis-a-vis the background clips, and your sense of a lack of contextualization.

  7. Arnie says:

    Well, here goes.

    I found you derisive in your snippy, snarky, nitpicky, so-called review.

    And though you grudgingly allowed as to how the effectiveness of the performances therein, you were, over all, downright ornery vis-a-vis the background clips, and the lack of contextualization.

    Your critique is an offer everyone should refuse, Brian.

    No. I do not work for HBO. (But I’d like to.)

    Arnie Tracey

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