Tom DiCillo is one of the founding members of the American independent film movement. Beginning with his first film, Johnny Suede (1991) starring Brad Pitt, and continuing with Living in Oblivion starring Steve Buscemi, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy and Delirious, DiCillo’s films have been internationally recognized and awarded. His film, When You’re Strange, the first documentary about The Doors, won the Grammy in 2012.
Alex Gibney’s documentary Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown hooked me about a minute in. James Brown is asked to define soul music. He answers, “It’s the word ‘can’t.’ When you hear that word all your life, it gives a different meaning to everything you do.”
I related to that. As an independent filmmaker, I’ve heard that word my entire career: you can’t have the money, you can’t cast that actor. You can’t make your film.
But relate does not mean equate. I’ve never experienced the “can’t” of you can’t eat here, you can’t drink from this fountain, you can’t sit here, you can’t go to school here, you can’t work here, you can’t exist here. This is the “can’t” that James Brown experienced in the ’50s and ’60s. And the rare accomplishment of Gibney’s film is that he shows how this formed the man, and how it informed his music.
I was eager to see Mr. Dynamite because a few years ago I made a documentary about the Doors called When You’re Strange. I tried to tell their story and also define what made their sound so unique. I felt an understanding of that sound was as important as their history. I’m not a music historian or theoretician. I have a basic knowledge of music structure and I play a little bit, but I love music and I’ve always envied those lucky bastards who can really play, seeing them as being only a few inches away from divine.
Gibney’s film bathes you in music. You hear it, you feel it and, miraculously, you see it. All of the people Gibney interviews are black except his tour manager Alan Leeds, who at one point sports an afro as big as a medicine ball. Gibney, who is white, creates a palpable intimacy with them all. One of my favorite moments was watching backing singer Martha High describe how James Brown created her last name for her. As she tells the story, High slips in and out of an impersonation of Brown that is so effortless and sharp it makes you laugh in delight.
When the members of Brown’s band speak about him and the music, they do so with such ease and mastery you feel thrilled to be in their presence. You don’t need to understand James Brown’s music in order to appreciate it, but when drummer Clyde Stubblefield slaps out the difference between his style and co-drummer Jabo Stark’s on his thighs it’s like a warm, rich light suddenly shining in.
Saxophonist and band leader Pee Wee Ellis describes the pivotal point in Brown’s trajectory when “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” ushered in the birth of funk. Ellis sings the timeless guitar jangle Brown had envisioned for the song then Gibney cuts into the live performance just as that guitar part comes in. He does this again when Ellis tells how James Brown excitedly rushed up to him and barked out a series of rhythmic grunts. Ellis was at first confused. Then he transcribed the grunts into notes and realized Brown had been singing the bass line for a new song which was to become “Cold Sweat.”
I know nothing of Gibney’s musical experience, but his editing shows he has an intuitive sense of James Brown’s rhythm and groove. The cutting is deceptively fluid and unobtrusive. But he had to really know the songs in order to weave in and out of them with such precision. And, man, do you feel the funk. When “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” first struts in, the force of that vamp is utterly intoxicating. It hits bones and muscles in the body and makes you want to move. The groove keeps flowing and churning and it knocks you over with its simplicity. Brown distilled the song to the repetition of a single phrase but he and his band keep it alive with constant variation and their obvious enjoyment of every note. You feel you are witnessing something completely new and, more than anything, you feel the power of it.
In contrast, Gibney cites King Records owner Syd Nathan dismissing Brown’s classic “Please, Please, Please” as just a guy “repeating the same word 17 times.” Then he runs an extended sequence of Brown singing the song and each utterance of the word “please” takes you to another emotional height. The word never sounds the same and the song surges forward with a rush that comes from never knowing where it is going next.
James Brown’s rejection of racial inequality eventually lead him into politics. One bizarre sequence shows him stumping for presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey. The speech ends with Humphrey singing “I Got You (I Feel Good)” with Brown and, astoundingly, this pudgy, balding white guy almost makes it work. I was fascinated by the way Gibney reveals the depth of Brown’s political feelings. When he speaks, Brown’s words carry a fierce, spontaneous eloquence that is astonishing compared to the neutered, non-committal blather heard from politicians today. His passion is based on his refusal to accept injustice. His outrage is rooted less in anger than an unshakeable belief that he and every black person in this country deserves the honor and respect of equality.
You can tell this is something Alex Gibney is interested in because he keeps coming back to it. In a TV interview, David Susskind is well-meaning but slightly imperious as he lectures James Brown on the current racial climate in the US. Brown reacts with such conviction, he jumps out of his chair. And ultimately he says the most truthful words Susskind will ever hear: “You don’t know me! You don’t know me!”
Later, Gibney runs an amazing sequence of footage of James Brown at a concert in Boston a few days after Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered. In the middle of a song, some kids jump up on the stage. Understandably on edge, the police react violently, shoving them hard back into the audience. Then Brown stops the song.
“I’m alright,” he says to the cops. “Wait a minute. I’ll be fine.” And the direct honesty of his words stops them in their tracks. Maybe that honesty enabled them to know him for just a moment. Gradually, he calms the crowd then turns back to his band and says, “Hit this thing, man.” And Brown and the band pick up the song right where they left off.
Mr. Dynamite traces James Brown’s influence into contemporary rap and hip hop. The political connection between “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” is clear and exhilarating. And James Brown’s rhythm and beats have been sampled and looped more than any other artist’s. But it’s a double-edged honor. There were no machines in Brown’s band. Everything was live. I doubt they ever played a song the same way twice. A loop or sample certainly adds flavor, but it also embalms the original music; it drains the blood, sweat and joy out of it, which is what James Brown was all about.
The gift of Mr. Dynamite is that it reveals the music and the complex humanity of the man behind it. James Brown was a troubled man. Gibney directly addresses the issue of his violence against women and lets Brown himself condemn it. But there is no question James Brown put his body and soul into his music. It consumed him. In almost every shot of Brown performing, his immaculate suit pants are spotted at the knees with dusty ovals from his ferocious, inexhaustible splits and knee-drops. The finale of his act was to be helped off stage, as if he’d gone too far. As Mick Jagger says, “Like he’s got to be taken away against his own will; it’s not good for him to do anymore.”