Steven Sheehan’s review published on Letterboxd:
With Chadwick Boseman's performance of his career bringing the Soul Brother No.1 to life in Get On Up, Alex Gibney's documentary takes us as close as we'll ever get to the man himself. This isn't a warts-an-all expose of James Brown, it has passed through his family's estate after all, nonetheless it is an insightful look at his music and the determination that drove him to creative heights.
Gibney lays it out in a typical biog structure, quickly covering Brown's poor childhood, abandonment by his parents, mid-teen prison sentence and redemption in the bosom of Bobby Byrd's family. The very first shot of the film is Brown in concert and Gibney continues to pack in live footage, a lot of it never seen before, reminding us just dynamic and ground-breaking his music was. We also hear about his early jazz influences and the two week period standing in for Little Richard that helped him perfect the most soulful scream ever heard on record.
Musically it concentrates on two decades, from the mid-fifties with The Flames to his - as drummer Questlove calls it - seventies moustache period. A multitude of talking heads, many of them key members of his band add their anecdotes and sharp details about life on the road and in the studio with the hard taskmaster. Brown's reputation for fining band members, withholding payments and not passing on the credit for his sound all comes under the spotlight. Of course, these elements of his life are less magnified than others but it is to Gibney's credit that he doesn't allow the film to completely sanctify its subject, at least not as a person anyway.
Those who were just as important in forging Brown's brand new funk sound are thankfully given ample time to contribute too. Pee Wee Ellis, Maceo Parker, Clyde Stubblefield, Fred Wesley, Bootsy Collins, John “J'abo” Starks are all present and correct, breaking down particular tracks, recalling the tireless work put into working for the man. A fair amount of time is spent covering his peak from the late 60's to the early 70's, which was also the period when he become far more politically motivated through the civil rights movement. In the long run he had his fingers burnt by Nixon and co but it is hard to deny he was a hugely positive role model for young black America when no other seemed to be as vocal.
Watching James Brown live was always a mesmerising experience, he proudly wore the title of The Hardest Working Man In Show Business and his tireless touring proved him worthy of it. There is a feeling that his impact and influence on modern music has still not been fully appreciated, so it is a pleasure to see a documentary that encapsulates some of his magic. In a world full of fly by night music stars, Mr. Dynamite is a reminder of what a legend truly is about.