As far as biopics go, 2014’s Get On Up was a stellar effort, telling James Brown’s story from childhood penury to angel dust- addled madness with style and panache. Decent as that effort was, Mr Dynamite is far superior. Why? Who would you rather watch – James Brown or an actor pretending to be JB? Here you get the JB story with sizzling footage of the man himself as he destroys audience after audience across the decades.
As the subtitle hints, you only get the best JB here. No angel dust mania, no creaky karaoke performances – this is prime JB, from the early, gospel-flavoured ballads of Please Please Please and Try Me through the soul epics of Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag and I Got You (I Feel Good) to the primal funk of Cold Sweat and Sex Machine.
This documentary follows Brown’s rise from pauper to prince and shows how he engineered his music to ensure domination of R&B from doo-wop to hip-hop. Brown’s musical and personal decline is not discussed here. This isn’t because Mr Dynamite trades in hagiography – far from it (former band members and associates tell of his meanness, cunning, violence towards women and other negative traits) but because director Alex Gibney and producer Mick Jagger want Mr Dynamite to be about the artist who literally changed how popular music was made, and who inspired so very many. The decline into disco and drugs is avoided simply because not a minute of this 120-minute epic is wasted.
This is near definitive, a must- have for any fan
Instead, here’s the essential JB, a force of nature as recalled by Bootsy Collins, Pee Wee Ellis, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Martha High and many other musicians who worked alongside him. Also contributing are Alan Leeds (tour manager), Questlove (of The Roots), author Greg Tate, the Rev Al Sharpton and Jagger himself.
The footage of Brown performing is extraordinary, as are the stories of the chitlin’ circuit and just how tough one had to be to survive in the ruthless world of African American entertainment. Archive interviews with Brown reveal a man who understood exactly what he had achieved and the odds that were stacked against him. He’s droll, knowing, steely and, as one associate notes, isolated and friendless.
Mr Dynamite comes with plenty of bonus features, including an extraordinary clip of Brown on Soul Train in 1975 where he’s joined by BB King and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. Here The Godfather – quite possibly then the most famous black American after Muhammad Ali – is so rapt about performing with two of his icons, he’s reduced to excited child status.
Any faults? Only that Mr Dynamite could have been longer – as with Miles Davis, Brown’s life and music are near-impossible to compartmentalise. For anyone who values James Brown, Mr Dynamite is near definitive, a must-have. For everyone else, this DVD is simply the best single artist music documentary of recent years.