You might not be surprised to hear that the highlights of the HBO documentary “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” are its many, many performance clips. Every snippet of Brown on stage surges with electricity — the beat, the horn riffs, the man, his voice, his moves. Dancing, he looks as if he’s shivering in rhythm, flying across the stage, making it with the microphone. He vamps lyric phrases off the groove and they sound like percussion.
And his screams, so visceral and hair-raising, they wake the spirit. In the film, which airs Monday night at 9, interviewee Questlove tries to analyze the James Brown Scream: “It’s gospel,” he says, “it’s soulful, it’s primitive, sexual, angry.”
One of the special pleasures of the film’s concert clips — including Brown’s legendary 1968 Boston Garden concert the night after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — is seeing Brown give his show-closing theatrical flourish. Seemingly spent, his shoulders draped with a cape, he’s led off stage like a weary king, only to run back to the mike, unable to stop himself from giving more to his loving fans. The crowds go wild. He borrowed that cape routine, Brown once told interviewee the Rev. Al Sharpton, from Gorgeous George the wrestler.
The rest of “Mr. Dynamite,” which was directed by Alex Gibney, works beautifully with the clips, albeit in their shadows. The film celebrates Brown, of course, as it dissects his work and his persona. “He liked to be a bandleader,” producer Mick Jagger says, and the many interviews with Brown’s band members bear this out. We hear about Brown’s love of formality and wearing suits on stage; “He preached stage decorum,” says longtime Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker. He preached off-stage decorum, too; he encouraged his band to wear ties and jackets even on the tour bus.
We hear about his expressions of black pride, including his much-discussed decision to let his hair grow, untreated, into an Afro. He made political efforts for civil rights, and he supported Democrat Hubert Humphrey during the 1968 presidential campaign; the footage of Humphrey singing “I Got You (I Feel Good)” with Brown from the podium is priceless.
Later, Brown endorsed President Nixon, a Republican, which led to accusations that he’d sold out. In a troubling juxtaposition, Gibney includes in his narrative about Brown’s support of Nixon a recording of Nixon sneering at blacks: “No, no, no, no. No more black stuff,” the president says to a staff member before meeting Brown. “No more blacks from now on, just don’t bring ’em in here.”
We also hear about how Brown initially developed his frenetic style, imitating Little Richard, and how Brown’s influence has spread far and wide, from Michael Jackson and Prince to Jay-Z, Kanye West, Bruno Mars, and Justin Timberlake. Both his cross-genre innovations and his stage presence changed the face of pop music. “I was obviously learning from it,” Jagger says of Brown’s stage dramatics, “trying to steal everything I could do.”
But “Mr. Dynamite” isn’t hagiography, and we hear enough about Brown’s personal flaws to make him quite human. Members of his band are respectful of Brown, and praise him where praise is due; listening to Pee Wee Ellis, Bootsy Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, and others explain their musical choices when working with Brown’s genius is extraordinary and enlightening.
But they also share stories about how little he paid them and how little he trusted them. After early abandonments by his mother and then his father, Brown “grew up with a sense that you can never really trust anybody,” says Brown’s tour manager, Alan Leeds. Drummer Melvin Parker describes having to pull out a gun when Brown once threatened to hit his brother Maceo in the mouth, the saxophonist’s most important musical tool. It’s an ugly scene. While Brown’s music healed so many listeners, as it expressed such visceral ecstasy, fury, and pride, his own soul, alas, was troubled.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.