MIFF 2015: Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown
By the time Alex Gibney’s Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown found a spot on MIFF’s 2015 program, we’d already seen two outstanding music documentaries in 2015. First, in Brett Morgen’s exhaustive, all-access Montage of Heck, we literally watched Kurt Cobain disintegrate and die before our eyes. Then, Asif Kapadia’s gut-wrenching Amy plunged us into the epicentre of Amy Winehouse’s tortured world, holding a mirror to our celebrity-obsessed culture in the process. Garnering huge international praise and significant emotional investments, both saw viewers enlightened and engaged through their entire running times.
With these successes fresh in the mind, Mr. Dynamite had a lot to live up to. Documenting Brown’s public ascent through the 60s and 70s, the film splices grainy archival footage together with various interviews from band members, critics and musicians alike. Serving as more of an influential reminder or reiteration than exposé into grounds uncharted, Gibney’s project is satisfactory without being sensational, reducing the blur between Brown the icon and Brown the man.
Mr. Dynamite can be separated into a trio of sections, each exploring the three different characters encapsulating Brown’s complete persona: musical genius, civil rights activist and narcissistic tyrant. From redefining soul, birthing funk, and laying the foundations for hip hop, Brown’s contribution to music is well documented and irrefutably eternal.
He’d mesmerise with his supreme live shows and unparalleled raw stage presence. He’d then find a way to bring that verve and vigour to the studio, onto a record, and into people’s homes. The lineage of artists as diverse as Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson and Kanye West can all be traced back to Brown, while Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger has admitted of “borrowing” from Brown most of his legendary stage presence. This we know.
The fresh insight Mr. Dynamite offers lies in Gibney’s balanced portrayal of the Brown behind the inimitable shrieks and lavish capes. With a level of esteem almost unprecedented for a black musician, his meteoric profile thrust him into the role of African-American and civil rights icon. His songs, performances and egalitarian messages would provide continued sources of strength for the community, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Defining his understanding of “soul music” early in the film via old talk show footage, its clear race was instrumental in pushing Brown to his creative heights: "Soul is when a man has to struggle all his life to be equal to another man,” he says. “Soul is when a man pays taxes and still he comes up second. Soul is when a man is judged not for what they do, but what colour they are."
But, interestingly, while the singer dedicated a good part of his career attempting to combat discrimination and violence in America, he was not always amicable to those immediately around him. Brown’s callousness as a bandleader and domestic violence arrests have been noted in the past, and Mr. Dynamite arranges further cases of tyranny for all to hear. He would literally sleep with one eye open to ensue people weren’t mocking him, force the band to record and practice under near-perilous exhaustion, crucify and fine them on stage for being off rhythm, and order female members to wear whatever skimpy outfits he wanted.
His coercion one day became too much for drummer Melvin Parker, pulling a gun on Brown in defence of band saxophonist and brother Maceo. "Sometimes James had good days, sometimes he had bad days. I didn't want to be a part of the bad days," Parker says of the incident two-thirds through the film. Having spent most of the documentary up to this point celebrating Brown, Gibney’s decision to then expose the truth behind his image as the film reaches its conclusion is refreshing. It’s a move not only necessary for balance but individuality too, augmenting the film’s psychological and social acumen.
But next to both Montage of Heck and Amy, Gibney’s project feels like it’s missing something; something unique, something vivid. He submits a respectable, rather than revelatory, account of Brown, reacquainting us with the performer’s many fascinating personal traits and tendencies. Though it won’t attract the same acclaim as its 2015 contemporaries, Mr. Dynamite represents Brown’s closest examination yet, and paints overall, both a flattering and critical portrait of one of music’ biggest and most complex icons.