For most of his life, Charles Bradley was a talented but obscure performer who sang at small bars and clubs as a James Brown impersonator dressed in a wig and cape and doing his best primal soul scream. Then in his 60’s he got a record deal, went on tour, landed a slot opening for Sharon Jones, another neo-soul late bloomer, and received international attention. This unlikely musical success story is the subject of the inspiring and heartwarming new documentary Soul of America, which premiered last month at South by Southwest and is now seeking distribution.
On screen, Bradley comes to life through fly on the wall reportage, footage of concerts, rehearsals, and recording sessions, interviews with his family, friends, and bandmates, and the stylistically incongruous reenactment of how he slept on the New York City subway as teen runaway. The glue that binds the movie is the music, and the music –from Bradley’s early gig as “James Brown Jr.” to his triumphant concerts under his own name—does not quit.
Charles Bradley, The World (Is Going Up in Flames)
Beyond showcasing Bradley’s vocal talents and off-stage charisma, Soul of America is a biography that tugs on the heartstrings. Director Poull O’Brien captures Bradley at home in the Brooklyn housing projects, cooking for his elderly mother, and sleeping in her squalid basement when he needs a break from the projects. Two of the film’s many tender moments are when he works with a volunteer tutor who teaches him to read and his tearful reaction when he revisits the spot where his brother was fatally shot.
Besides his personal struggles, Bradley faces the obstacle of his age. As his much younger musical collaborator Thomas Brenneck says in the film. “I don’t know how many artists have been 62 years old and released their debut record.” The comment underscores the reality of a pop music industry and audiences that have long preferred youth to experience. With the exception of classic rock stadium acts and revivals such as the recent Kraftwerk show at the Museum of Modern Art, few bands make it to middle age. Even barely legal Justin Bieber is already old, more newsworthy for his paternity suit than his, ahem, music.
One uncomfortable implication of the film is the degree to which Bradley, who is African-American, owes his belated success to white audiences and champions: from the retro hipster tastemakers at Dap-Tone Records to the filmmaker himself. The movie’s triumphant finale occurs at a club in the bourgeois bohemian Brooklandia of Park Slope, only a few miles from Bradley’s home in the projects, but a long way from his world shown elsewhere in the film. For at least a century, music from jazz to Motown to hip-hop has crossed racial barriers. But in a post-racial society and digital era where music has never been more accessible to more people, Bradley’s story begs the question: why are music audiences still so segregated? And is Bradley’s success an example of what the ruthlessly satirical and cynical web site Stuff White People Like calls Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore. His summer tour schedule includes blues, jazz, and folk festivals in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Poland, and Canada, places not exactly known for their diversity.
Soul of America skirts such divisive and contentious issues, and instead focuses on one man’s musical triumph against the odds, a message of hope for anyone who’s ever refused to quit on his dreams.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed M. Ward’s new album, A Wasteland Companion, and Alain De Botton’s book Religion for Atheists. He was a story advisor on the documentary How To Grow A Band, which closes its two-week run in New York today at the Village East.