When The Eagles were looking for a documentary filmmaker for their History of the Eagles, guitarist Glenn Frey says they went with director Alex Gibney because his work “jumped off the [screen]…It was so riveting.”
They’re not alone in that assessment: Gibney, 61, whose previous credits include Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, has become the go-to director-producer for estates and other entities looking for a top documentarian. First up, his James Brown film Mr. Dynamite premieres Oct. 27 on HBO. Next are a Frank Sinatra documentary timed to the singer’s centennial in 2015, and Finding Fela!, his film on the life of Afrobeat progenitor Fela Kuti and the Broadway musical Fela! that premiered at Sundance. His Kuti movie is three months into limited-run screenings that continue into February and will soon be available on digital services.
In telling the stories of three artists, Gibney has employed a unique approach: have the subjects speak for themselves as much as possible — yes, even if deceased. “When the subject is partially narrating, it’s a little harder to structure, but ends up being much more satisfying,” says the New York-based Gibney, who is sifting through countless tapes of Sinatra speaking rather than singing.
For Mr. Dynamite, Gibney focused on Brown’s cultural impact, using the 1971 song “Soul Power” to start the film and create a spine for the documentary that would focus on the singer’s political activism and interaction with politicians, the White House and civil rights leaders in addition to his music.
“The first thing [Brown] talks about is the definition of soul. He says, ‘To me, it’s the word ‘can’t,’ ” says Gibney, who worked separate from the Brown biopic Get On Up even though Mick Jagger, Victoria Pearman and Peter Afterman produced both films. “Over time I have discovered that the story of a film tends to reveal itself in the material. Sometimes great stuff doesn’t necessarily fit as neatly with the story as other stuff does — we fracture a pure chronology in favor of a theme.”