James Brown Documentary Director, Producers Talk About Finding Rare Footage
Alex Gibney, Peter Afterman and Blair Foster reveal how they made some of their most exciting discoveries
Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown is the second film about the Godfather of Soul to be released in the past six months. But while Get on Up used Chadwick Boseman and other actors and narrative techniques to help create a portrait of Brown's life and career, the Alex Gibney-directed documentary, which premieres on HBO on Monday, uses interviews and an abundance of archival footage, including rare clips and photos, to reconstruct his life story and highlight how Brown influenced music and society.
Speaking at the Mr. Dynamite premiere Monday night at New York’s Time Warner Center, Gibney and producers Peter Afterman and Blair Foster recalled how their surprise discoveries shaped the film.
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"It wasn’t about wanting [footage and photos] we didn’t get, it was about finding the ones we didn’t expect to find," Gibney, who previously directed The Armstrong Lie and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Specifically, the filmmakers found footage from the opening of Brown’s televised Boston concert following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, which Foster said no one had seen since the show was broadcast.
Afterman explained that that footage was sitting in cold storage in Nashville and Foster recognized that it might be significant when she saw that it was in its original packaging.
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“Anytime you come across something that’s not labeled, you’re like, 'transfer that first' because that’s potentially the gold,” she said, “There were several things the estate had where we were like, 'we’re not sure what this is, the labeling’s a little bit vague.' ”
Other rare footage featured in the doc includes Brown's appearance on the local cable-access show Black Dignity and Brown’s concerts at the Olympia in Paris, which Gibney says they “showcased in a way that hadn’t really been done before.”
“You can really feel that bridge from the big band era to what would be the funk era,” Gibney said. “And it’s super exciting because that footage hasn’t really been well known.”
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Foster said they searched far and wide for the material included in the documentary.
“We hit up every local government, library, you name it, in the South,” she said.
Afterman, who also runs the Brown estate, was able to help with some material but he noted they did run into some problems.
“The estate doesn’t own very much actually. They own the physical asset but they don’t own the underlying rights to it,” he said. “So sometimes we ran up against some people who were a little less than cooperative with the rights issue.”
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Still his role as producer on Mr. Dynamite and executive producer Get on Up, working with Mick Jagger and Jagger's producing partner Victoria Pearman on both films, allowed him to shape the documentary so it would be different from the feature film.
"I knew what the biopic was going to be," Afterman said. "So in all of our talks, I could sort of guide it and say, ‘We could do this because the biopic isn’t really going to do this’ and ‘We should maybe do that because the biopic’s not going to do that.’”