There is one interview I remember from my early days as a reporter, and I often recite a line from it because it’s the best answer I’ve ever gotten and ever will get. Naturally, it came from James Brown.
It was in 1989, when he was in prison for, among other things, capping a long bout of partying with a high-speed chase through Georgia and South Carolina that ended only after police officers shot out his tires.
I was a Time magazine reporter, and he was working in the prison cafeteria. The warden let me wave through a window at Brown as he wiped down tables in a cook’s white coat and cap, embellished by purple wraparound sunglasses and matching scarf. Brown was allowed to speak by phone.
I didn’t even know where to begin, so I asked how he was feeling. “I’m well rested now,” he said, and waited a beat. “But I miss being tired.”
That reply is almost reason enough for watching “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,” an HBO documentary directed by Alex Gibney. But there are plenty of others. This is a smart, informative and compassionate look at the artist known as the Godfather of Soul, whose music changed America.
Brown, who died in 2006, was a fascinating figure. Just this year, he inspired a biographical movie, “Get On Up,” with Chadwick Boseman as Brown, and there have been a steady stream of biographies, including two memoirs that he wrote with co-authors.
He was a magnetic, kinetic master of R&B, soul and funk, with roots in gospel and big-band music. He was a beloved performer and an often terrible boss and violent husband. (His third wife, Adrienne Lois Rodriguez, told me he once laid out her mink coat on the bed and then shot it.) He played an important role at critical moments in the civil rights movement and also shocked his fans by supporting Richard M. Nixon in 1972.
Of course, there is also the music. The film opens with Brown sweating through a muscle T-shirt and chanting the opening words of “Soul Power” to a frenzied audience at the Olympia in Paris in 1971.
The narrative threads his scratch-poor boyhood dancing for nickels in the segregated South to his lasting influence on rock, hip-hop and rap. The film doesn’t dwell on his sad last days, but it does address his many contradictions — personal, musical and political. All of it is set to the beat of his music, which gets the last word.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who was a friend and protégé and contributed to one of Brown’s memoirs, tries to explain why his hero supported Nixon. “James Brown believed in bootstrap economics, lift yourself up,” he says, “so the appeal of Richard Nixon, which was a total, total atrocity to me, but to James Brown it was black capitalism.”
The camera cuts to Brown performing “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing.”
Mick Jagger, a producer of “Mr. Dynamite,” also has a lot to say about Brown, an artist he copied early in his career. Jagger, of the Rolling Stones, has the grace to admit his debt, saying he tried “to steal everything I could possibly do.” But he also uses the occasion to correct a legend about “The T.A.M.I. Show,” a performance feature film shot in 1964, when the Stones followed Brown and were upstaged by his electrifying performance. Michael Veal, a musician and author, says he heard that while Brown blew up the room, Jagger stood watching on the side of the stage, “just being devastated and traumatized.”
Jagger says that although Brown did indeed “kill,” the concert was filmed as a movie, which was heavily cut and edited, and that the Stones’ performance was filmed hours later with a different audience. (In fairness, the Stones’ rendition of “It’s All Over Now” at that concert does not seem nearly as insipid and embarrassing as Gerry and the Pacemakers’ singing of “How Do You Do It?”)
Some of the most revealing moments come from the memories of less famous friends and colleagues, including Bobby Byrd, the musician who took in Brown when he got out of jail at 20 and who founded what was eventually known as Brown’s backup group, the Famous Flames. Other musicians who played in Brown’s band express joy and pride in their work and also deep disappointment with a boss who was aloof, a loner and a bit of a skinflint.
One time, when band members gathered to confront Brown, he stormed out. Another time, when band members said they were fed up, Brown brought a group of new musicians onto the stage, where the current band members were already preparing to play: It was their cue that they were all dispensable.
He was an important, thrilling voice during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. After Brown performed in Mississippi, Dick Gregory said, “This is black power, baby.” And Brown played a heroic role in Boston in 1968 right after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. He went on with a scheduled concert and persuaded the enraged and distraught audience, and the entire city, to stay calm.
Not everything about him was admirable. Mr. Sharpton gets the second-to-last word, explaining, “What was his negative may have ended up being his strength.”
Last and best comes Brown, performing back when he felt good because he was feeling tired.
“Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” debuts on HBO tonight at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.