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.