Alex Gibney seems to be channeling the work ethic of the famously hard-working subject of his most recent documentary. “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,” which debuts Monday on HBO, is the fourth documentary Gibney has directed in two years.
“Mr. Dynamite,” produced by Mick Jagger, charts the rise of the “The Godfather of Soul” from his hardscrabble youth in the South to the apex of his fame in the 1960s and 1970s. James Brown is considered an innovator and influencer of funk, R&B, rap and soul, and in footage from "Mr. Dynamite," a reporter asks Brown to define "soul." He responds: “When somebody tells you that you can’t do something, that’s when you dig down deep -- to figure out how you can.”
Brown's career spanned some of the most tumultuous years of modern American history, and the documentary features rarely-seen footage of the performer holding a concert after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in which he appeals to the audience to keep the peace. Brown and his band performed civil rights benefits concerts in the 1960s, and in 1968, Brown recorded two songs that tackled race, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud" and “America Is My Home,” in which Brown proclaims "[N]ame me any other country, You can start out as a shoeshine boy, And shake hands with the president."
International Business Times was able to talk to the busy director about "Mr. Dynamite," Mick Jagger, and how James Brown changed our culture.
When did you decide to do a documentary on James Brown?
A year-and-a-half ago, I got a call from Mick Jagger asking if I wanted to make a documentary. It wasn't hard to say, "yes"!
Jagger is also the producer on the feature-length film about Brown, called "Get On Up." How did that happen?
The films are on parallel tracks. They're both more or less independent films. Jagger saw the sense in doing a fiction film and a documentary. He has a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for Brown.
It sounds like you got unprecedented access to materials from the James Brown estate. Was their input crucial to "Mr. Dynamite"?
It was great to have cooperation from the Brown estate, but our access to materials was also due to looking all over the place for them. There was great footage from 1966 and 1967, for example, from the Olympia in France [the famed music hall in Paris]. And in the South, we found the missing reel from one of his Boston concerts. We also found footage of his "March Against Fear" in 1966, too. We found stuff all over the place. [The "March Against Fear" was a civil rights demonstration originally started by activist James Meredith, who walked from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi to protest against continuing racism. Performers including Dick Gregory and James Brown showed up for the protest's growing crowds.]
What was the most surprising or interesting thing you found in your research and searching?
There were a few. In addition to the footage of Brown giving a speech after the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination, most people don't know about the "March Against Fear" chapter in his life that we were able to piece together. And there was an interview from 1968 with David Suskind, one of the public intellectuals of the day, who treated him with condescension. He kept calling him "Jimmy." Brown took great umbrage at this, and they went toe-to-toe in ways that are crackling with excitement. It was a volatile time, and the interview is riveting.
How would you describe his influence on music, pop culture and politics?
He was a one-man wrecking crew -- and I mean that in the most positive sense. Yes, the things he did in his personal life could be cruel, vindictive and awful, but he was someone who changed the culture. He's the only one I can think of who took music from the big band jazz era to hip-hop, while on the way, inventing funk. As a band leader, he integrated a brash, proud sound to a defiant stand in terms of civil rights. He wrote songs like "I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing" and "I'm Black and I'm Proud."
Some people have said that Brown was, surprisingly, a conservative and supporter of Richard Nixon, and they use the lyrics of "I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing" as a kind of proof. Do you agree with this reading of Brown as a conservative?
He was defiant, and that song was saying, "I'll do it on my own. I'm not waiting for handouts, or your liberal pieties. Level the playing field and I'll kick ass." He fell prey to the promise of "boostrap conservativism." Nixon acted like there were no systemic problems of racism, but it wasn't so simple. Also, not everyone could be as driven, talented, or ruthless as James Brown. He never reckoned sufficiently with inequality, but he was not purely conservative. He was defiant -- he wasn't going to bow and scrape. He fell into a con by Nixon, but it was a double edged sword.
Your documentary is focuses on "the rise" of James Brown. Is there a reason you didn't focus on his fall, as well? Is there anything to be understood about the man from his demons or contradictions?
We looked at his abusive, self-serving, and angry nature, and you sees the seeds of his ultimate undoing in the later part of the film, but in one film, you can't do it all. It would be all surface. We chose to focus on the aspect that had to with how his music changed the culture.