Charles Bradley: Soul of America is a documentary film that follows the short period leading up to album debut of an energetic rhythm and blues singer. The twist is the artist is 62 years old. Charles Bradley took 40 years to make it as a singer. He toiled as a James Brown cover act wearing the trade mark wig and sporting the James Brown cape. He was known both as Black Velvet and James Brown Jr. Bradley was unwilling to give up his dream collecting small fees for playing to partially filled rooms and taking on small jobs to keep going.
Bradley is a fantastic character with deep life experience. Born in Florida to a mother who left for New York after a married man only to return later to take Bradley and his brother back to New York under dubious circumstances is one of the accounts from his life that became the basis of his music.
Signed to Daptone records in Brooklyn a small label that boasts other soul music artist lead by Sharon Jones the producers had a unique songwriting process with Charles. They would have Charles come in to just sit and talk. Eventually they hit on an incredible story which became the basis of a track for the album.
Charles keeps an apartment in the projects where he goes for some alone time. His apartment is where he keeps his large pet Parakeet which he purchased during his stint living in California in the late 70's and into the 80's. But most of his time is spent at his mother's house where he covers the bills, does all of the cooking and takes care of the home.
As the album release date approaches Charles performs as an opening act for other artists in Albany and Poughkeepsie. Since he used to live and work in Poughkeepsie he takes the time to drop in on a couple he's known since the late 60's to invite them to show. The crowds are appreciative of his original music wanting more or wishing that he would have come out and the end of the set with the main act for an encore.
The description of the musical process at Daptone records is fascinating. Producer Gabriel Roth discusses every aspect of song creation. They touch on how the lyrics are fleshed out. How they use a piano sequence that Charles always plays and incorporate it into a song. How a song cans start with a single guitar riff and that can build into a song in a mere couple of hours of playing.
An interesting side event is the appearance of Charles' English tutor. Charles would like to be able to write down his thoughts as lyrics but he reads and writes at a grade one level. His tutor meets with him once a week to help him with his reading and to eventual reach is goal.
Costume design is all based on Bradley's personal style. He creates his own outfits for stage. He shops for the materials and if a designer outfit is two expenses he buys the fabrics and swatches in clothing stores and puts on the screens, cuffs and collars himself.
The film counts down to the album release party. In the final days leading up to the event. Charles is on the streets near the club handing out flyers in an attempt to raise a decent crowd for the event. The album's producers are hopeful that it will go well but also realize that a rooking 62 year old performer could open to an empty house. The team get a boost as an article about Charles appears in the New York Post right before the show.
Director Poull Brien keeps the action moving and there are no wasted scenes in the 74 minute piece.
The film shows all aspects of Charles Bradley's life including the rough conditions in the projects and the poor neighbourhood and streets around Bradley's mothers Bedford-Stuy neighbourhood.
The soundtrack is full of rhythm and blues standards along with Charles Bradley originals. Bradley's reaction to the completion of the video for his first single. The World (is going up in flames) is priceless it is a kin to a child reacting to a new found and before unheard of medium. Bradley pours out his heart and soul to the audience every time he hits the stage. Every member of the audience leaves with the impression that he is singing to them directly. He throws every ounce of his being into the songs veins popping, up down to his knees and then up again on stage, all the while his on the stage voice straining to hit each and every note. When he tells the audience that he loves them and thanks them for coming to hear him sing they truly believe him.
The main light of the film is Charles Bradley himself. He tells the stories from his life plainly and honestly. His accounts of his monotonous working days in Poughkeepsie. A throw away story of a police stop that could have lead to serious trouble to a touching story of a pet chicken that he had as a child that suffered a tragic fate. The main characteristic of the man is his fighting spirit never giving up on has dream and finally getting that first record deal at age 62. Charles Bradley: Soul of America is a film that I highly recommend.
*** 1/2 out of 4
Charles Bradley: Soul of America | Poull Brien | U.S.A. | 2012 | 74 Minutes.
Inaugural Toronto Black Film Festival.