Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown

This compelling HBO documentary chronicles the rise of music legend James Brown, who was one of  the most important music artists/performers of the 20th Century. The documentary, which premiered on October 27th, examines Brown’s amazing ascension from an impoverished youth to an international superstar and influential cultural figure. Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown was written and directed by Oscar-winning documentary film director and producer Alex Gibney, and Mick Jagger was one of the executive producers.

The documentary examines Brown’s massive influence on the music and entertainment world. He was a peerless dancer/performer who influenced a slew of great performers, including Prince, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, Terence Trent D’Arby, Janelle Monáe and Bruno Mars. And perhaps Brown’s greatest achievement was his invention of funk music, which is an explosive, beat-heavy, rhythm-driven form of R&B. Funk has spawned a number of popular music genres, including disco, hip hop, boogie, house music, go-go, electro music, funk metal and G-funk. And the documentary explores how Brown cultivated this new funk sound and continued to expand it until it was an essential component of R&B music.

Mr. Dynamite is filled with incredible concert footage that features some of Brown’s most electrifying performances, including his legendary appearance on The T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, which introduced him to a young white audience in the U.S. and significantly broadened his fan base. It also has his 1966 debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show where he blew television viewers away with his raw and dynamic performance style. These concert clips display why people started calling him “Mr. Dynamite.”

The film also shows clips from his historic concert in Boston, Massachusetts following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. Riots were erupting in cities all across the U.S. at the time, and there were concerns that violence might break out in Boston as well. The concert was held on April 5, the day after the civil rights leader's assassination, and anger in the black community was still at a boiling point. When audience members starting getting rowdy and rushing the stage, Brown stopped mid-performance, chided the crowd for their behavior and how it hurt Dr. King’s legacy as well as the Civil Rights Movement in general. The crowd quickly quieted down, and Brown launched right back into the song he was performing without missing a beat.

Invaluable clips like this show just how much Brown was respected and revered in the black community at that time. There was probably no other person alive who could have defused the crowd's anger and agitation in such an absolute fashion. And most agree that Brown’s concert prevented riots from occurring in Boston during those sad and bitter days following Dr. King's assassination. The documentary also touches on how Brown was inspired to write “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)," one of the greatest and most important black pride anthems ever recorded.

The documentary profiles the funk pioneer flaws and all. It pulls no punches when addressing the Godfather of Soul’s shortcomings. It paints a portrait of an exceptionally talented but controlling, insecure and somewhat isolated figure who had serious trust issues. The documentary examines Brown’s rough childhood, which may have been the root of his insecurities and sometimes irrational mistrust of people; his mother abandoned him when he was four, and he spent many of his childhood years living in his aunt’s brothel in Augusta, Georgia, and his father was often out of the picture as well.

Some of Brown’s former band members shared stories of his volatile temper and the despotic fashion in which he controlled his band. However, the musicians also praised Brown for his undeniable gifts as a performer and as a true music innovator and how they were proud to have played on some of his classic tracks, which ushered in new type of R&B sound in the 1960s and ‘70s. Some of band members who were interviewed for the documentary included Maceo Parker, Bootsy Collins, John “Jabo” Starks, Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, Clyde Stubblefield and Fred Wesley. The film also contains numerous clips of interviews that Brown gave throughout his career, which offer some insight into his political and personal beliefs during different periods in his life.

And the documentary also features commentary from contemporary artists who discuss how Brown had influenced and inspired them as musicians and performers. Some of these artists include Kanye West, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson (aka Questlove), Chuck D and Janelle Monáe.

Brown was truly a one-of-a-kind artist. His impact was undeniable, and he wrote a new chapter in music history and blazed a path for numerous artists who followed. He achieved this through preternatural talent, obsessive drive, a powerful work ethic and sheer force of will. And this absorbing, well-researched documentary does a tremendous job of exploring Brown’s life—onstage and off—and how he came to be the world-shaking funk dynamo who forever changed the game in popular music and entertainment.

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