By Paul Faithfull
October 17, 2013
I can’t see the members of One Direction (or indeed any other group) cooking for their mothers as part of a feature length documentary. While that may be because I’ve not seen Simon Cowell’s charges’ latest cash generating celluloid escapades, the healthy dose of reality which surrounds Charles Bradley — subject of documentary Soul Of America, released on Daptone DVD on 2nd December — helps to paint the portrait of a man so unaffected by impending stardom that he’s unlikely to be found stumbling out of Chinawhite at 3am. Additionally, Bradley was born in 1948, so it can be assumed that tabloid-pleasing indiscretions outside drinking establishments are likely to be few and far between.
Soul Of America, a stunning portrait of a musician who is as humble as he is talented, begins with Bradley preparing for his old ‘day job’ as a James Brown impersonator going out on-stage under the name Black Velvet. Such was his fear of the unknown when it came to Bradley performing under his own name that he wanted to wear the wig and cape for his own shows. Footage of past and present is deftly juxtaposed with footage of Bradley travelling to his home within the Brooklyn Projects. While he sees his apartment there as sanctuary, the ‘craziness’ of the surroundings — which has seen one of his neighbour’s doors riddled with bullet holes — leads Bradley to often seek refuge in his elderly mother’s basement.
The documentary chronicles Bradley’s journey from tribute act to headliner, and as a viewer it is hard not to be taken in by Charles Bradley’s utterly infectious enthusiasm and deep joy over finally achieving his lifelong goal. Given that he had been paying tribute to the Godfather of Soul for almost fifty years in one way or another, some of his vocal stylings and moves on stage seem almost lifted lock, stock and barrel from the JB manual (if such a thing exists!), but the exuberance with which Bradley pulls off his act is certainly his own. Also very much his own is Bradley’s humble attitude towards his success which, peppered throughout the film, is extremely touching. When asked for his thoughts on what sort of success he aspires to, Bradley responds with startling honesty: he says simply that having never yet been able to make a living from music, he hopes that he will be able to now. In another sequence, following the publication of a fairly modest piece in the New York Post, Bradley is seen proudly showing off his achievement to anyone within viewing distance that he knows, resulting in a touching moment with a close acquaintance.
Allowing the people who have been close to him share in his success seems a genuine thing for Charles Bradley, who appears more interested in spreading the joy than boasting. When a tour in support of fellow Daptone artist Sharon Jones brings him to the home town of an old acquaintance, not only does Bradley visit the friend but he also gets them onto the guest list, and pays tribute to them in one of his songs. Religion is clearly also very important to Bradley, and he makes many references to the fact that God has answered his prayers, even if it did take him a while. This adds to the Bradley’s humility, as it seems that Bradley is reluctant to recognise his own role in his new-found success, instead thanking God for what he has acheived.
While Bradley remains humble about his success, one sequence following a performance shows how much getting his act right means to the man, and how much he feels he has yet to learn. After a quick debrief with the band-leader, Bradley talks equally to the camera and himself, saying both that he’s getting better and admitting that he’s able to recognise where things may have been going wrong, and identifying how he can improve in future.
[A quick note: It’s hard to talk about this documentary without making reference to the ending and, being conscious of spoilers, I'll warn you that if you want to find out for yourself what happens to our hero, then please watch the documentary before reading the rest of the review!]
Soul of America ends with the launch show for his debut album No Time For Dreaming (released in 2011). Taking place at the end of the documentary, the launch is emotional for everyone concerned, and Bradley seems overwhelmed by the adulation he receives from the entire audience present. An especially touching moment is when he points out his mother and thanks her sincerely; similarly emotional is the sequence in which Bradley expresses his feelings about his own mortality.
Given that the documentary was filmed in late 2010 and early 2011, Bradley fans will be well aware of his success — which he cemented earlier this year with the release of second album Victim of Love. Despite this fact, the film is entertaining and moving both in portraying Bradley at a time before the music industry at large had heard of him and before he had become a familiar musical name, and in showing Bradley as he takes his first steps towards realising his dream of supporting himself and his mother through his music.
While I would have liked to have seen a little more about Bradley’s background (huge swathes of his past were glossed over in a few sentences), I understand that the film was centred more on the launch and promotion of Bradley’s first album, rather than being a thorough biopic. The sincerity and love which show through in almost every frame of this documentary endear Bradley to the audience very rapidly, and if you don’t have a lump in your throat at least once whilst watching, you’re probably cursed with a heart of stone.
Charles Bradley : Soul Of America is available from amazon (here).