The film starts with a 62-year-old man wearing a flowing cape and instantly recognizable wig, donning the disguise of a soul legend before taking the stage.
He slinks into the dark Brooklyn divebar, ostensibly there to celebrate a birthday and perform in concert. The man who goes by the stage name "Black Velvet" and "James Brown Jr." gets up and does his thing to an appreciative, small crowd of a few dozen people, who seem equally drunk yet enthralled. Noodling away out of shot, the backup band do their best attempts at the stabbing riffs of the JBs as legend-to-be Charles Bradley pays tribute to his musical muse.
From this simple beginning, we're led through a remarkable rise in this frank, humble, and wonderfully paced documentary, directed by Poull Brien. Free from obvious filler material, the 74-minute running time seems to succinctly capture the remarkable nature of the man, a resilience that's both astonishing and inspiring.
For any fan of the contemporary R&B scene, Daptone Records and their retinue of artists will be a familiar sight. The enormous success of Sharon Jones, along with the meteoric insanity of the Dap Kings' involvement with the likes of Amy Winehouse, made for seemingly endless fodder for a particular genre of nostalgic yet impeccable, ageless-feeling music. Their numerous other housebands, from the Budos Band, the Sugarman 3, or the Menahan Streetband that back Charles Bradley, have provided a propulsive injection of old school, swinging deep funk in a way that's respectful of the past from both musical and production standpoints yet completely forward looking in its execution.
Bradley joins the likes of superstars such as Jones and others at Daptone who haven't seen the same success, including the (incredible/underappreciated) Lee Fields. The Fields record is hinted at in this film; you see his name on shared bills with Bradley, and his absence and challenges in finding his own success would make for its own interesting project, perhaps as a side bar if the film were expanded to traditional feature length.
There's a significant scene midway through where Charles meekly asks for Sharon's autograph at a gig where he opened for her. It's a poignant and extremely telling demonstration of the dynamic that, at least early on, existed between the two different artists from the same record label family at different time in their careers. Sharon seems miles away from the life she lived only a few years back as an undiscovered gem herself, conveying an almost regal presence, while the self-confidence that Bradley will eventually demonstrate looks, at first blush, absent in the presence of the other powerhouse singer.
As it proceeds, the film manages to let us hear about the man's struggles without ever feeling that these are superfluous to the man's music. As the veins in his neck bulge as he shouts, grunts, and pleads during performances, reflecting the heartfelt love he shares with what he calls his hometown crowd in Poughkeepsie, it's well-nigh impossible to divide the man's emotional delivery from the ache and sorrow that he's lived with for six decades.
The story of his mother abandoning him, his sleeping on a subway to stay warm after running away, and other tragedies could have, in lesser films, appeared somewhat maudlin. Instead, the tales are told with a sensitivity to the past, but overwhelmed by Bradley's own almost superhuman ability to forgive the trespasses of others.
Rather than shunning the mother who abandoned him, he dotes on her, giving up almost all material possessions so that she can remain comfortable in her own home. Instead of raging at a world that has mistreated him, he finds a voice in his music and performance that's at once welcoming and joyful but with a world-hardened funk blues sentiment that's the dark, vital undercurrent propelling him along.
We visit the grimy, prison-looking gated facade of a Brooklyn building where his brother was shot, near the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood that his mom still calls home. A plaque pointing to a different murder adorns the facade, testimony to the harsh circumstances in which Bradley has been making a go. His own apartment is populated by an exotic bird, tied to a surprisingly poignant story he tells about a pet chicken. As he tells that tale, one notices removable Energystar tags on the fridge and cardboard corners on the parrot paintings, either a sign of the impermanence with which he treats his possessions -- ready at a moment's notice to be relocated -- or a sign of his new found success that allows for newer creature comforts.
To its credit, the film gets the balance between talking head-style backstory and concert footage, a tonal reciprocity that's quite rare in a film of this nature. Bradley's own growth as an artist, coupled with his attempts to better himself (we even see him taking literacy lessons) show that even at his age there's room to dream, room to make one more grab at something that's remained ever so close yet completely elusive for so long.
For this particular music nerd, to see the inner working of the Daptone process was a real treat, almost an echo of the goosebump-raising scenes shot at the snakepit for Standing in the Shadows of Mowtown. Captured on DSLR, Brien and crew provide an intimacy that worked extremely well with the material, granting us access to the often cramped spaces of Bradley's apartment and the equally cluttered and charming recording space used by the musicians.
It's clear, as well, that while this is for the most part a joyful celebration of Bradley and his music, the future success of the man is by no means secure. Producer Gabriel Roth in particular is effective in pricking any bubble that may somehow obscure just what a hill Bradley is trying to climb. Still, there's clearly much love for the man, along with much commitment on his part, driven by a strong, deep faith shaped by tragic loss and more wrong turns and missed opportunities than any man deserves.
It also may be easy to overlook Thomas Brenneck's role in helping Bradley find his own voice. The talk of the creative process, the working hand-in-hand on the project, is as creatively inspiring as Bradley's perseverance is emotionally satisfying. Brenneck, too, comes across as completely grounded in his assessment, a veteran of many failed attempts and great successes himself; he shares the wish for Bradley's success but seems at the same time appropriately guarded when it comes to what the future holds.
If it were merely a repository for the seriously badass grooves that litter the soundtrack pounding through a fine sound system, then Charles Bradley: Soul of America would make for a hell of a good time. It's wonderful to see that the film has much higher intentions than that, making for a mighty impressive first (short) feature by Brien. To borrow again from his musical Godfather, it's a blast to see Charles get up and do his thang in front of an appreciative audience.
Both a celebration and contextualization of his increasing prominence, Charles Bradley: Soul of America makes for an Superfunky good time.
Review originally published in slightly different form during Hot Docs in May 2012. Charles Bradley: Soul of America begins a limited engagement at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, Canada on Friday, May 31. Visit their official site for showtimes and ticket information.
Update: For gratuitous reasons, here's a photo of "The Screaming Eagle of Soul" jumping into the crowd and giving me a big, sweaty hug at a recent Toronto gig.
(photo courtesy of Rachel West)