Judge Victor Valdivia is the Godfather of DVD Verdict, which means he dances and grunts when he writes reviews.
Two sensational shows from the Godfather of Soul.
The 1980s were not an easy time for James Brown. During the 1960s, he changed music irrevocably, defining a new sound, style, and attitude that would set a course for both R&B and rock. In the 1970s, he would still enjoy a string of artistic and commercial successes culminating in 1974's "The Payback," one of his most definitive songs. By the end of the decade, however, he began to falter. The 1970s had seen a rise of artists, most notably George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic, who had taken Brown's innovations into new directions and were scoring even bigger commercial successes than he was. The 1970s also saw the rise of disco, which used Brown's rhythmic styles and flattened them into more mechanical and anonymous music that outsold his by the boatload. By the time the 1980s began, Brown had already made the uncomfortable transition from an artist known for his current work to one known for his past work. Though he would enjoy one last Top 40 hit in 1985, "Living in America," even his staunchest fans would concede that it's really a pale imitation of his earlier and better work. The 1980s would also see Brown descend into drug addiction and frequent troubles with the law, finally climaxing in 1988 with a high-speed chase and arrest that led him to spend three years in jail.
Given such turmoil, it's not surprising that the two concerts captured on Double Dynamite!—one from 1980 and the other from 1985—are not exactly as "sensational" as the cover proclaims. Brown still gives some great moves, his bands still have some immensely talented members, and there are a few flashes of pure soul power. Unfortunately, there are far more moments where the band seems flaccid, the energy lags, and Brown doesn't even appear to be onstage. The 1985 show, in particular, is almost painful to watch, especially when compared to some Brown's earlier spectacular performances. Sad to say, this is not Brown at his best.
Double Dynamite! is compiled from two performances. The first was filmed at NYC's infamous disco Studio 54 on March 27, 1980. Here is the setlist:
• "It's Too Funky in Here"
The second was filmed at Atlanta's Chastain Park in 1985. Here is the
setlist for that one:
Though Brown's backing band is billed as the JBs on the Studio 54 show and as the Soul Gs on the Atlanta one, the two backing bands are virtually identical. The one crucial new member on the Atlanta show is sax player Maceo Parker, one of Brown's most legendary collaborators and musicians. He adds some much needed force to the Atlanta show, and also serves as MC for Brown. The other sax player, St. Clair Pinckney, who appears on both concerts, gets some raucous solos on the Studio 54 concert, and that show's MC, Danny Ray, makes a great hype man who builds up energy for the show.
The good moments, however, are few and far between, which is downright shocking for James Brown concerts. For one thing, Brown felt the urge, for some reason, to kowtow to prevalent trends, especially on the Studio 54 concert. So on that show, the band actually sounds less like a tight funk outfit and more like a disco group. The horns are barely audible, and most of the music comes from the keyboards and bass. Similarly, on the 1985 Chastain show, the band is led by "Sweet Charles" Sherrell, the band's keyboardist, who dominates the show with his 1980s-style synthesizer lines. These changes only make classic songs like "The Payback" and "Get on the Good Foot" sound like weak cover versions rather than thrilling funk jams, as they used to on earlier shows. They also give Brown himself less chance to show off his moves and vocals, since they make the band rather than Brown the focus of the shows.
Unfortunately, in some ways, this may be what he wanted. During the Atlanta show in particular, Brown seems to not be there. There are several songs where Brown disappears from the camera and the microphone and it's up to Parker to hype up the crowd and even, at one point, to sing the vocals. Why Brown is so inconsistent and sketchy isn't explained, and it's probably better not to speculate, but it's still heartbreaking. If you're watching a James Brown concert, you want to see the man himself. He finally comes back towards the end and leads the band in a roaring final jam, but by then it's too little too late. It's especially distressing because neither show is included in its entirety. With only an hour or so from each concert, the fact that viewers won't even get the entire time with Brown makes this DVD even more disappointing.
As for the technical aspects, those are mixed. The Studio 54 show, which was shot on cheap video, does not look good. The red overwhelms virtually every other color, and coupled with the rather soft and hazy look, makes it almost painful to watch. The Atlanta show, on the other hand, looks surprisingly good, considering its age. The 5.1 Surround mixes are clear, though strangely muted. The only extras are text discographies and biographies and a slideshow of photos. They're simply not enough to make this DVD more than intermittently interesting. Though it has a few good moments here and there, the two concerts preserved here don't really do justice to how spectacular Brown could be in concert. James Brown: Double Dynamite! is ultimately guilty of not showing James Brown off at his formidable best. Track down I Got the Feelin': James Brown in the 1960s instead.
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