Charles Bradley lends some soul to Best of Hot Docs
Alex Brough financedCharles Bradley: Soul of America out of his own pocket, calling the film “about as indie as you can get”. But the dividends for the producer (and former Vancouverite) have been spectacular. “It was like a religious experience,” he tells the Straight in a call from New York City. “His story needed to be shared, you know? He’s just such a beautiful man, and so inspiring.”
Director Poull Brien’s experience was no less ecstatic, especially since he was questioning the trajectory his own life had taken when shooting began on the project in November 2010. “I’m here watching this guy who’s had it 50 times harder than I’ve ever had it,” Brien recalls in a separate conversation, “and he’s still chugging along. For me, it was almost like a big hug from the universe.”
This is fairly typical of the Charles Bradley effect, as anyone who saw the soul singer’s Biltmore Cabaret show last year will tell you. “Charles gets on-stage and he brings people to tears,” Brien says. “But,” he adds, “a lot of them don’t really know what he’s been through.”
Charles Bradley: Soul of America—which concludes the three-day Best of Hot Docs festival at the Vancity Theatre on Sunday (June 24)— vividly tells the story. The singer’s association with Daptone Records guaranteed a certain amount of attention when his debut album, No Time for Dreaming, was released in 2011 (and Brien’s behind-the-scenes footage of the Brooklyn neo-soul label is a nice bonus for record nerds). But it’s Bradley’s mythic back story and almighty mojo that make the film so riveting. As his guitarist and songwriting partner, Thomas Brenneck, tells the filmmaker: “Charles has got the craziest stories. The craziest stories.”
Bradley’s life is a relentlessly grim catalogue of abandonment, poverty, prejudice, and murder. By the time he made his first real record at the tender age of 62, he was living in the projects, learning how to read, and struggling to pay his infirm mother’s mortgage as a James Brown impersonator called Black Velvet. Despite being “taken advantage of at every turn”, as Brien characterizes it, Bradley himself remains miraculously positive and heartbreakingly sincere.
“Charles is a very spiritual guy,” Brien states. “Beyond that, I don’t know, man—it’s the intangible. How did he get to be such a beautiful guy? How was it that this beautiful thing came out of such a rocky and turbulent childhood?”
No Time for Dreaming ended up becoming one of the best-selling indie albums of 2011. After returning from a tour of Europe, Brien says, Bradley told him: “Poull, this damn thing done went crazy,” but Charles Bradley: Soul of America has a significance greater than its happy ending. “More than ever,” Brough says, “people want to see that there’s still good out there and there are still good people that are succeeding.”
On that note, Bradley is reportedly finding it a lot easier to pay Mom’s mortgage these days.
Best of Hot Docs runs at the Vancity Theatre from Friday to Sunday (June 22 to 24).