Documentaries

Thought-provoking documentary cinema covering horror, culture, music, sports.

Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown

JB and his poppa.

That’s MISTER James Brown to you, and he called everyone “Mr.” too. While technically growing up James, he was always called “Jimmy” and to a young Brown, “Mr.” connoted respect — both given and received. As a kid who grew up a call-girl wrangler and shoeshine boy in terrible circumstances in the Deep South, he almost miraculously morphed into THE greatest entertainer of the 20th century (forget Sinatra, Elvis, and yes, Michael Jackson). Much RESPECT indeed.

Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown is a a look at that journey, a peek into the life of a demanding, tyrannical (and at times lonely) genius who fined his bandmates for wardrobe slip-ups and missed notes, and even got into armed confrontations with them!

Drummer Melvin Parker (brother of sax legend Maceo) tells of a backstage altercation where JB had planned to pop Maceo in the mouth so he couldn’t blow his horn, so a packin’ Melvin intervened. It’s terrific pistols at dawn stuff, but really, that’s just one fascinating kernel in a documentary that puts Brown’s music into the context of the tumultuous Civil Rights movement and the assassination of James Meredith and Dr. Martin Luther King. Or, as it’s said in the doc: “Brown’s whole sound is an assertion of black beauty and black pride.”

There’s some great music nerd stuff, as trombonist Fred Wesley recalls how he was a less-than-enthusiastic funk music fan, but appreciated how James Brown was doing something different, so he decided to join the band when the offer was extended. Mick Jagger talks about 1964’s seminal concert film, The T.A.M.I. Show, and how he stole a bunch of Brown’s moves (Maybe Adam Levine would’ve written about JB if his name were an extra syllable). Questlove, the effortlessly cool drummer from The Roots, breaks down “grace notes” and how a tambourine is used in church and how JB’s two drummers created the nasty funk sound.

But what’s so great about Brown is…that he made poet Ezra Pound’s famous modernist injunction, come true: ‘Make It New!

That’s what Brown was all about.

Cold Sweat, is arguably the first funk track, throwing everything on “the one.” Brown basically created a sound that has its reverberations to this day in hip hop. Most people are lucky enough to create one style of music, let alone lay the foundations for another. LEGEND.

***1/2 (out of 5)

 

Gaga: Five Foot Two

Gaga: Five Foot Two wasted a prime Spinal Tap moment: when the pint-sized New Yorker drops her album, as well as her over-the-top glam in favor of shorts and a black-T. How much more black could it be? The documentary (on Netflix) gives us all-access Lady Gaga, a woman whose fashion audacity is unmatched, but whose music is about as interesting as a basic wardrobe staple.

At 31, she’s at the age that linebackers are cut from the NFL, and pop stars face oblivion (Gaga, aka Stefani Germanotta, references that decade milestone as a time when she can “start to become a woman”). Is Gaga: Five Foot Two a Hail Mary* to stay relevant?

Gaga has always painted herself into a corner, musically: despite avant-garde aspirations, she’s still the equivalent of “the office weirdo” if she worked for an actuarial firm. If she were truly weird, she’d release Metal Machine Music, instead of courting lanky tastemaker-du-jour Mark Ronson, the man behind the boards for Uptown Funk and Rehab, as her career threatens to go gently into that good night.

It’s taken long enough for her to realize she’s a Six Foot Two pop talent, who doesn’t need all the Donatella Versace trappings, meat dresses, songs about fame (always the dullest subject matter in any artist’s repertoire) and assorted nonsense. To wit: the gorgeous acoustic lament, Joanne, written for a late aunt, which has a vulnerable Nico tone lilting into a Rufus Wainwright chorus, “Girl, where do you think you’re going?”

The same could be asked of Ms. Germanotta, and with Interscope money behind her, a bevy of handlers, hangers-on, stylists, physiotherapists — one wonders if the art doesn’t suffer in the process.

And she apparently suffers for her art too. In Gaga: Five Foot Two we get to see her at the doctor, getting hip injections, getting rub-downs, massages, the works, and at one point asking, “what would happen if I didn’t have all this?” [wealth].

At that point, as she gazes forlornly off her penthouse balcony over Central Park, you might want to whistle for the world’s smallest violin, but that’s the neat tension that this doc brings. Seldom do you get to see the creative process laid bare (Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster also  does this), even if the “supporting cast” buzz around her like bees and are barely background furniture.

Most importantly, as far as her image goes, the indifferent will likely become casual fans…

*** (out of 5)

[Editor’s note: The opening sequence is a stunner: Gaga hoisted into the sky to perform for the Super Bowl half-time show]