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'Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown' review: Great footage, little insight

"Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown" on HBO. Photo Credit: HBO

THE SHOW "Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown"

WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 9 on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Produced by Mick Jagger -- in interviews here he credits Brown's vast influence on him -- and directed by Alex Gibney, "Mr. Dynamite" takes viewers through the glory years, and on to the songs like "Say it Loud," and "Funky Drummer" that changed the world.

There's a glorious mountain of footage to climb -- including from the 1964 concert film, "T.A.M.I Show," in which the Stones had the misfortune of following Brown. This also charts Brown's growing -- and vitally important -- role in the burgeoning black power movement of the '60s, then his baffling endorsement of Richard Nixon in 1968.

MY SAY There's so much here that it's easy to overlook what's missing. Paradoxically enough, that would be James Brown.

Jeremy Marre's 2003 film for "American Masters," "Soul Survivor," had Mr. Dynamite himself, touring camera crews through the old blighted neighborhood where his Aunt "Honey" ran a brothel, or revisiting old triumphs (or battles.) Brown died on Christmas Day, 2006, and so Gibney must instead rely on longtime band members and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

(Brown, as fans know, was a surrogate father to Sharpton for decades. Sharpton, who now functions as Brown's Boswell and apologist, has returned the favor here, as he has in other films about him).

Gibney, one of the best documentary producers around, also has collected a magnificent trove of footage, old interviews and (best of all) fresh ones from former band members and members of the Famous Flames.

In fact, think of “Mr. Dynamite” as a generous tribute to them all and to one of the singular bands in music history. The list includes trombonist Fred Wesley, saxophonist Maceo Parker, drummers Clyde Stubblefield and Melvin Parker, saxophonist Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis and the most famous Flame of all, Bobby Byrd. They are superb here, their memories (and stories) as sharp as yesterday.

But Brown, even after two hours, remains a cipher, a mystery, a paradox. None of his late legal troubles are mentioned (actually that's a relief) because the film charts only his "rise."

"Mr. Dynamite" instead works best as musical biography, only fitfully as a comprehensive one. After watching this, fans should check out Marre's excellent film (it's on YouTube) and the Tate Taylor biopic, "Get On Up" (not yet on Amazon Prime) for the fuller view.

Watch this one for the footage and the Flames. That's plenty -- just not enough.

BOTTOM LINE Stunning footage, insufficient insight.



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