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HBO's varnished James Brown documentary is still more thrilling than unfulfilling

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James Brown: No one could him in his prime. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Obtaining the complete cooperation of any late legend’s estate invariably is a double-edged proposition.

In return for all that “rare and previously unseen footage,” a filmmaker generally is expected to downplay the controversial aspects of the subject’s life and times. So it goes with HBO’s Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, which ends abruptly after fast-forwarding to the influence he had on artists ranging from Michael Jackson to rapper Chuck D.

Produced by Mick Jagger (who also helped birth the 2014 Brown biopic Get On Up) and directed by Alex Gibney, the two-hour documentary premieres on Monday, Oct. 27th at 8 p.m. (central). That’s directly opposite the Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins Monday Night Football face-off, although viewers in those two venues will have ample other opportunities to watch Mr. Dynamite on their own schedules.

The film loads up on Brown’s incredible stage performances and how he made his music on his terms and no one else’s. His political activism -- and the odd turn it took -- also is detailed at considerable length. But Brown’s repeated physical abuse of women is lamentably glossed over while his various drug addictions and latter day arrests go entirely unmentioned. He died on Christmas Day, 2006 at the age of 73. A series of elaborate memorial services ensued.

Jagger’s interest in Brown dates to seeing him first-hand during one of his many electric performances at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. There’s apparently no filmed footage of those historic early 1960s appearances. Or at least nothing is shown in Mr. Dynamite other than still pictures. But Jagger’s recollections are vivid. He recalls watching Brown from the Apollo balcony while seated next to an old lady smoking a joint.

“I was obviously learning from it,” he says, “trying to steal everything I possibly could do” as the gyrating lead vocalist for the then formative Rolling Stones.

A few years later, In 1964, Brown and The Famous Flames, the Stones, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and other musical deities were all booked on the T.A.M.I. concert, which also was being filmed as a movie. In Mr. Dynamite’s most intriguing segment, Jagger remembers being asked to arbitrate after Brown objected to the Stones closing the show rather than him.

“He wasn’t really that mad. But he was a bit pissed off, I think,” Jagger says.

The upshot: Brown’s crazy-good retaliatory performance, much of it reprised in Mr. Dynamite, supposedly upstaged the Stones and made him a completely impossible act to follow. But Jagger says that a new audience was brought in while the stage was re-set after Brown’s performance.

“I don’t think they’d even seen James Brown,” he says. “Still, “if you watch the film, you see us up against him, so to speak,” Jagger adds. He laughs good naturedly and basically agrees that Brown reigned supreme that day. But it’s clear he also had pride in his own performance. And the crowd reaction to the Stones is hardly dismissive, even if the intensity of the squeals for Brown would have shattered far more crystal.

A number of Brown’s old band members also are interviewed. Some recall him as a “black power” capitalist in public forums, but a skinflint when it came to spreading the wealth. When band members finally confronted him, Brown simply cut them loose and recruited mostly new musicians.

Brown wore over-sized wigs or had his hair processed (“conked”) during his rise to fame via hits such as “Please, Please, Please; Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You.” But he went natural for a while during the “black power” movement of the later 1960s while also recording his most stirring declaration of independence, “Say It Loud -- I’m Black, I’m Proud.”

The future “Godfather of Soul” regularly took his music and sometimes his views to The Mike Douglas Show, a syndicated afternoon hour in which Brown once memorably squared off with the imperial David Susskind. Condescendingly calling him “Jimmy,” Susskind said blacks were ill-advisedly re-segregating themselves. “Open your ears,” he told Brown, who wasn’t buying it.

“My ears have been open. Have your eyes been open?” Brown retorted. It’s an amazing verbal joust.

But after endorsing Democratic Party presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Brown re-embraced his processed coif and endorsed Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign. “I’m endorsing the country,” not a political party, he told an interviewer.

Many in the black community renounced him. Speaking volumes without saying a word, Mr. Dynamite includes footage of a black boy carrying a sign saying, “James Brown A Bought Brother.”

The film pretty much leaves it at that after showing a young Al Sharpton giving a plaque of appreciation to Brown on an episode of Soul Train. In a fresh interview for Mr. Dynamite, Sharpton also is the one who briefly touches on Brown’s mistreatment of women. He knew it was “wrong” and was contrite about it, Sharpton says. If anything, the physical abuse intensified in Brown’s later years. But the film seems to be saying in so many words, “Let’s move on.” The subject’s life still has 30-some years to go when Mr. Dynamite closes the door on it with an appreciate of his music’s ripple effect.

James Brown’s parents both abandoned him at an early age, the film points out on more than one occasion. It left him to be raised by an “Aunt Honey” who both ran a brothel and brewed moonshine. So he came from basically nothing and supposedly never conquered his insecurities or inability to fully trust those who worked for him.

“He had to force people to be around him. I think he was lonely,” says Fred Wesley, Brown’s former trombonist and band leader.

“I guess you could say James Brown was a tyrant,” tour manager Alan Leeds says. But he chalks this up to how hard he had to fight to get to the top.

Mr. Dynamite, and no doubt Brown’s estate, are primarily intent on charting that rise. Much of the performance footage is phenomenal in that respect. But in two hours time, the film could have dug deeper rather than coming to a screeching halt that almost rivals its subject’s high-pitched stage wails. Then again, it’s partly titled The Rise of James Brown. The descent just doesn’t cut it from an estate-authorized standpoint.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

More comic bookery on NBC's wham, bam and oft-befuddling Constantine

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Matt Ryan (not the Atlanta Falcons quarterback) stars in Constantine. NBC photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Matt Ryan, Harold Perrineau, Charles Halford, Angelica Celaya
Produced by: Daniel Cerone, David S. Groyer, Mark Verheiden

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Anything can happen and an awful lot does in NBC’s first episode of Contantine. In this case, that’s a problem.

Friday’s crazily paced, head-spinning premiere may be elementary to those very intensely familiar with the Hellblazer DC Comics series on which it’s based. Most viewers won’t be so versed, though. Which makes it a considerable leap from “Dude, makes perfect sense to me” to “What the hell’s going on here?”

Title character John Constantine, energetically played by Welsh-born Matt Ryan, is a self-described exorcist beset by demons both within and without him. He’s first seen in a Northern England sanitarium, undergoing shock treatment. This doesn’t seem to help, causing him to blow up at his therapist before he subdues a possessed young woman who’s painting a bloody masterpiece amid thousands of creepy crawlies.

The words “LIV DIE” then appear on a wall, prompting Constantine to deduce, “I’ve got work to do.” He’s soon pulling up in a yellow cab next to a woman named Liv (guest star Lucy Griffiths), whose auto has mysteriously malfunctioned atop an Atlanta parking garage. “If you don’t listen to me, you’ll be dead by morning,” Constantine warns after a huge hole opens up, followed by an explosion.

Next comes Manny the angel (Harold Perrineau from Lost), who has super-sized wings and an overall disdain for Constantine. “You’re not OK, John,” he says with an imperious air. “You damned a woman to hell. And along with her, your soul.”

This is complicated. Constantine remains obsessed with rescuing young Astra (guest star Bailey Tippen), who’s been taken away by some sort of “inner circle” demon. Liv, whose late father, Jasper, was a fellow demon-chaser and mentor to Constantine, has left her with the same power to “see the world for what it really is.” Which is why the evil-doers want her dead. Which means that Constantine must use her as “bait.” Hey, my head’s hurting, too.

Liv originally was supposed to be a regular character in Constantine. But the producers decided to write her out after Friday’s first episode in favor of a more powerful ally named Zed (Angelica Celaya), who’s scheduled to show up in Episode 2.

All kinds of weird stuff is visited upon Liv before she hits the cutting room floor. A “ghost train” passes through both her and Constantine, prompting him to explain, “There are worlds beyond ours -- parallel planes of existence.” Liz’s girlfriend also is brutally murdered before she sees Constantine’s trusty pal, Chas (Charles Halford), seemingly die after being impaled. Then there’s the climactic “demon seal,” drawn by Constantine atop the parking garage because “there are millions of demons. We have to figure out which one of them has you marked for death.”

Ryan also gets to say “mate” on several occasions while adding a couple of “bollocks.” In other words, there’s no attempt to Americanize him or neuter his thick European accent. He also comes complete with a self-deprecating sense of humor. When Liv rather sarcastically recites the “Master of the Dark Arts” description on his business cards, Constantine shoots back, “I’m getting new ones made.” It’s a nice but very brief respite from the constant mayhem.

Constantine and Manny the opinionated angel will continue to spar as this series tries to take somewhat coherent form. “You’re a sideshow attraction, a peddler of shabby magic,” Manny sniffs.

Our hero -- or whatever he is -- will wind up in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania for the Halloween episode of Constantine. Until then, he makes a climactic narrative pledge: “I’ll drive your demons away. Kick ‘em in the bollocks and spit on ‘em when they’re down. Leavin’ only a nod and a wink and a wisecrack.”

Paired with NBC’s like-minded Grimm on Friday nights, Constantine doubles down on both shape-shifting and puzzlements. Its whiz-bang-boom special effects also might serve as ample enticements for viewers who don’t much care whether anything makes any real sense. Others can simply stick with the straight-from-the-shoulder story lines of CBS’ competing Blue Bloods. No danger of confusion there.

GRADE: C+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

An independent woman and a crack shot, too: new DVD collection revisits trailblazing Annie Oakley TV series

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Gail Davis as TV’s Annie Oakley and the real deal.

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Return with us now to those thrilling days of Little Barky’s pre-pubescence, where Gail Davis as Annie Oakley was must-see TV for reasons that had nothing to do with the idea of gender empowerment.

Your future friendly content provider watched for one over-riding reason -- a crush. The same could be said for the many hours spent viewing Annette on The Mickey Mouse Club and even Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, whose horrid production values were overshadowed by star Irish McCalla’s curvature.

All these years later, though, it’s demonstrably true what they’re now saying about Annie Oakley. Davis, a University of Texas at Austin grad and protege of Gene Autry, starred in “one of the first television shows to successfully portray a woman as independent, with courage, dignity and honor.”

Westerns began riding high back in the 1950s, with men calling the shots and women mostly content to watch them hit the dusty trail before returning to a home-cooked meal. Not so with Annie Oakley. In the very first episode, subtitled “Annie Gets Her Man,” she grew weary of shooting the gun out of the hand of a short-tempered twentysomething punk played by Dwayne (Dobie Gillis) Hickman’s older brother, Darryl.

“Now you be a good boy or Annie’ll spank,” she told him. At that precise moment, she earned her spurs.

Made by Autry’s Flying A Productions, the half-hour series originally ran in syndication from 1954 to ’57 before ABC later aired reruns on weekend mornings. A total of 81 half-hour episodes were filmed. And this week Annie Oakley: The Complete Series is newly available on DVD via vcientertainment.com.

“He felt that a little girl should have a heroine,” Davis says of Autry in an audio interview included in the package.

The 11-disc collection also has a 34-minute documentary on Davis; a collection of commercials for products she sold as Annie; and the original unsold Annie Oakley pilot, which starred Billy Gray (the future “Bud” of Father Knows Best) as her energetic little brother, Tagg. Jimmy Hawkins eventually got that role and played it for the entire series. Brad Johnson, as towering deputy Lofty Craig, was the other principal regular character. He may have been sweet on Annie, but seldom showed it.

Each episode began with an announcer declaring, “Bullseye! Annie Oakley hits the entertainment bullseye every week with her hard ridin’ (see her catch a runaway stage coach), straight shootin’ (Annie stood atop her galloping horse, Target, and fired a shot through the center of a 9 of Spades) and suspense” (demonstrated by Annie sneaking through a half-open window).

Although she got to show off her storied marksmanship, the scrapped original pilot for Annie Oakley portrayed her as appreciably more prim and deferential. She wore ribbons in her hair and girly dresses part of the time while deferring to her Uncle Luke, sheriff of smallish Diablo, Arizona.

“Lofty, take Annie back into town. She’s not safe running around alone. I’ll follow the trail of those murderers,” Uncle Luke ordered. Annie silently acquiesced.

In the re-made opening episode, Uncle Luke was out of town, as he would be in virtually every episode. This left the bossing and most of the sleuthing to Annie. Clayton Moore, who went on to star as The Lone Ranger, is fleetingly seen in Episode 1 as an unmasked, second tier bad guy with a couple of speaking lines.

Annie remained sweet-tempered throughout the series, nurturing Tagg as his big sis even after a growth spurt made Hawkins slightly taller than her by the show’s final year.

The plots were never brain surgery -- or even a cyst removal. Late in the last of three seasons, an episode titled “Santa Claus Wears A Gun” introduced viewers to Snowy Kringle, a white-bearded old sharpshooter in town with his “Big Carnival Show.” He ended up being framed for robbery before Annie and Lofty eventually snuffed out the real villain. Annie more than did her part by shooting the padlock off a box from a long distance and later executing a nifty head-over-heels flip of a varmint who very briefly got the drop on her.

Autry, one of the first to sniff gold in weekly TV westerns, made certain that Annie Oakley generated a steady stream of merchandise ranging from comic books to lunch boxes to a red, white and blue belt and holster with twin six guns.

Davis and Hawkins, in character as Annie and Tagg, also relentlessly pitched products. A collection of commercials on a bonus disc shows they specialized in talking up the nutritional and tasty merits of Wonder Bread and Hostess Cupcakes, Twinkies and Sno-Balls.

In these cases, the woman of the house reverted to stereotype. Even Annie Oakley wasn’t about to change that equation, with Davis telling the show’s impressionable young viewers, “Why don’t you ask your mom to pick up a package next time she shops?” Or, “Ask mom to buy a loaf next time she goes shopping.”

The real, sterner-face Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Mosey, died in 1926 at age 66. Gail Davis, born Betty Jeanne Grayson, died at age 71 in 1997. Near the end, in 1994, she finally received the Golden Boot Award honoring those who have made special contributions to the Western movie and TV industry.

Autry, a charter winner in 1983, is shown alongside her at the ceremony on the Annie Oakley bonus disc.

The award since has been discontinued while the Annie Oakley TV series rides again for those who remember it back when. In retrospect, it’s much more a pathfinder than a footnote in the history of how television depicted its women characters.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Music to his ears: HBO's Sonic Highways indulges Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl

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Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl vs. Chicago’s cold. HBO photo

Premiering: Friday, Oct. 17th at 10 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, his bandmates and various musicians/producers
Directed and co-produced by: Dave Grohl

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Dave Grohl means well, even if his Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways series doesn’t always hit the right musical chords.

Each hour of the 8-episode series “is devoted to a different American musical landmark, chronicling the history, cultural environment and people that define each city’s unique musical identity,” according to HBO publicity materials.

First up Friday night is Chicago, presumably defined above all by the blues. Grohl, who directed each episode, indeed spends some time with Buddy Guy, the Muddy Waters disciple whose guitar ferociously tore into the blues.

“His playing is so intense that it sounds mean,” says Jimmie Vaughan.

But Cheap Trick and the ‘80s punk band Naked Raygun get equal exposure while Chicago (the band) gets hardly any time at all.

Choices must be made here, and you can’t include everyone. But this opening chapter of Sonic Highways pretty much is funneled through the words of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who says, “I don’t care about the blues really. When I think of Chicago, I think of Cheap Trick. That’s about as deep as I go.” This strikes him as funny.

Grohl also devotes ample time to producer Steve Albini, veteran proprietor of the Electrical Audio recording studio, former peripheral member of Naked Raygun and known in the industry for being a “cynical prick.” Albini also produced and recorded Nirvana’s third album, “In Utero,” back when Grohl was the band’s drummer.

None of this is boring. Who knew, for instance, that the famed Cubby Bear sports bar, located in the heart of Wrigleyville, used to be a weeknight mecca for the punk scene? As a wide-eyed kid, Grohl was taken there by his very grownup cousin, Tracey Bradford, with whom he reconnects in Sonic Highways. “It just turned my world upside down,” he tells her. She was a punk performer herself, with Verboten.

In each of the 10 cities they visited, Foo Fighters recorded a song for their new album at a “legendary studio integral to the unique history and character of each of these great musical capitals.” In Chicago, they pound through “Something From Nothing,” with Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen sitting in. This decidedly isn’t the blues. And Buddy Guy is nowhere to be seen.

Episode 2, also made available for review, originates from Washington, D.C. Grohl grew up in a Virginia suburb, and the Inner Ear Studio “produced the entire soundtrack of my youth,” he recalls.

Again, that would be punk, with former members of Bad Brains and Teen Idles getting most of Grohl’s attention along with Inner Ear Studio owner Don Zientara.

“Go-Go” music also gets into the mix, with an emphasis on this funk genre’s founding father, the late Chuck Brown. But Grohl’s go-to guy is veteran local punk potentate Ian MacKaye, whom he idolized growing up.

The Foo Fighters put on a D.C. club show with both punksters and funksters during this second hour of Sonic Highways. Alas, all viewers will get is Grohl’s tease of a long night of heavy duty rock. Then it’s immediately on to the Inner Ear Studio for a closing performance of “The Feast and the Famine,” which also will be on a new Foo Fighters album scheduled to be released on November 10th.

Sonic Highways’ other stops will be in Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Austin, where Grohl hooks up with Gibby Haynes, co-founder of Butthole Surfers and son of the late, legendary Dallas children’s TV host Jerry “Mr. Peppermint” Haynes.

Open questions: will Sonic Highways at least emphasize jazz in New Orleans and country in Nashville? And might the Foo Fighters stray from their comfort zone to record a song in each vein?

Whatever happens, this is an interesting series and a worthy endeavor that makes terrific use of archival footage in both of the first two hours. But the overall emphasis on punk is at the expense of more vital genres. Nowhere more so than in Chicago, where Buddy Guy and other bluesmen aren’t exactly left out in the cold but too often hit the cutting room floor.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Viewers should get engaged with NBC's Marry Me

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Ken Marino and Casey Wilson of new comedy Marry Me. NBC photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Oct. 14th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Casey Wilson, Ken Marino, John Gemberling, Sarah Wright Olsen, Tymberlee Hill, Tim Meadows
Produced by: David Caspe, Seth Gordon, Jamie Tarses

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
As sitcom setups go, the opening minutes of NBC’s Marry Me may be the best you’ll see this season -- on a new or returning series.

It’s a brilliantly conceived rant and recant introduction of principal characters Jake and Annie (Ken Marino, Casey Wilson). They’ve just celebrated six years together with a vacation in Mexico. But at age 32, she’s tired of waiting for him to pop the key question. So upon return it’s hell to pay -- but in ways she never imagined.

Wilson and Marry Me creator David Caspe previously collaborated on ABC’s Happy Ending, which basked in favorable reviews but didn’t cut it with enough viewers. They’re now married in real life, and this new series is a loose adaptation of the run-up to that. Annie is volatile and gabby, Jake is calmer and less verbal. But as he tells her in Tuesday’s premiere episode, “I need your explosions. You challenge me.”

A flashback scene to the night they first met is brief and to the point. And there’s not a speck of narration, which has been much over-used this season in an effort to dodge the bigger challenge of writing strong character dialogue.

Although more distinctive than derivative, Marry Me still can’t escape fall’s invasion of the shlubby bearded buddy. Which means that Jake’s best pal is the divorced Gil (John Gemberling), who’s needy, adrift and equipped with “a body like a bag of ground beef.”

The pilot episode made available for review still has two f-bombs intact (they’ll be bleeped or removed entirely) and a sucker punch of a line that goes like this: “We literally cannot get away from each other. We’re like Paula Deen and the n-word.”

Jake’s widowed mom, Myrna (played by the estimable JoBeth Williams), will be a recurring character. Annie has two dads, “Kevin One” and “Kevin Two” (Tim Meadows, Dan Bucatinsky). “I am a product of an egg from a lesbian my dads no longer speak to,” Annie says by means of explaining her oft-combative attitude toward moms at large. Birth by artificial insemination apparently can be a bitch sometimes.

Marry Me runs a solid second to ABC’s black-ish in the informal competition for best new comedy series of the fall season. Episode 1 gets off to a terrifically inventive start, with Wilson and Marino teeing things up before further hitting their grooves apart from one another. Paired with the welcome second season return of About A Boy, it gives NBC a smart and engaging comedy duo.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net