Harsh Texture

Mr. Dynamite! The Rise of James Brown

Traces James Brown through his earliest successes to the peak of his career through interviews with his sidemen and contemporaries

Normally posthumous bios exist to perpetuate myths, turning their subject into saints or demons. Mr. Dynamite pulls in the opposite direction.  Almost a dozen of Brown’s associates work at stripping away the misconceptions and legends until we get an idea of the real man underneath.

This may not have been possible during Brown’s lifetime. As the film makes clear, Brown’s life work was to recalibrate how the world viewed him. The means to this may have seemed subtle but were the product of meticulous discipline. He made sure his band always dressed in suits, even while traveling through the stifling South on buses, to be ready for any potential photograph. He made all of his employees address him as “Mister”. As Brown recounts to a collaborator, all of the adult whites in Georgia always addressed him as “Jimmy”, even though his name “never been no Jimmy”.  Indeed, later in the film while on a TV panel even a liberal academic constantly calls Brown “Jimmy” who seethes, growing increasingly agitated.

The names of his collaborators will be familiar to any fan of Brown’s work. Maceo Parker, Melvin Parker, Bobby Byrd, Bootsy Collins, Catfish Collins, Fred Wesley, Clyde Stubblefield, Pee Wee Ellis; Brown often called out to each mid song in appreciation of their chops and gifts. They all agree that outside of his singing, Brown possessed little musical acumen. He couldn’t read music, nor could he play any instrument well. This didn’t stop Brown from trying to instruct his players, taking their instruments from them in rehearsals and sloppily demonstrating how he envisioned the music whenever he wasn’t satisfied. Long time collaborators learned to let Brown have his way during these tirades. After waiting him out, they could often return to playing just as they were before without complaint. What drove this behavior... Others found creative opportunity in Brown’s management style. When Brown cornered Wesley to transcribe an idea he thought up, little more than a series of grunts, Wesley instead snuck in some bars of Miles Davis’s “So What” and the result was “Cold Sweat”.

Mick Jagger’s company produced “Mr Dynamite”, another fine picture in his growing catalog (see also Enigma). Though Jagger remains an admirer of Brown, this whole picture may have just been an opportunity to refute the urban legends surrounding the Tami Show, a mid sixties concert film that pitted James Brown at his peak against a nascent Rolling Stones and other bands of the era. As the story goes Brown was upset that he wasn’t picked to close, that honor going instead to the Rolling Stones. Brown’s fiery performance was said to inspire great fear in the young Jagger. In Jagger’s telling however, taking nothing away from Brown’s set, due to the nature of filming hours went by between sets with different audiences brought in for each band. After making this point, Jagger retires from the documentary.

Mr. Dynamite properly contextualizes Brown in the world of early soul and R&B, giving special emphasis on the light skinned long and lanky soul singers that managed to break through to pop audiences and how Brown’s short frame, dark skin and “African” features made his success all the more unlikely. It doesn’t go much further in addressing the changes in black music during this period. Sly and the Family Stone, the Isley Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, nor the Chess or the Stax stables merit any mention. In a way this is fitting. Brown created a whole scene, multiple second tier performers who scored hits of their own fronting the same band. But in doing so the production misses perhaps Brown’s most interesting comparison. Many of the musicians featured here ran to George Clinton’s P-Funk projects when boycotting Brown over pay. The music they made there was a polar opposite to Brown’s tight, controlled, songs.

Many of James Brown’s performances survive to this day on YouTube and the like, but never the less Mr Dynamite unearths some incredible footage of the man as celebrity presence. There’s footage of Brown’s short lived chain of restaurants. His address to the Boston audience looking for any excuse to descend into riots immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King. There’s a wonderfully cringe worthy exchange where Hubert Humphrey--the politically doomed hero of the Civil Rights Act--attempts to sing along with one of James Brown’s hits. Richard Nixon, by contrast, groans at having to meet “another black” when Brown pays him visit at the White House.   

Published: Nov. 19, 2017, 2 p.m.
Updated: Nov. 19, 2017, 2:01 p.m.