Chances are if you have heard somewhat recently about up and coming R&B superstar Charles Bradley, the well received Hot Docs 2012 documentary Soul of America probably had something to do with it. Rightfully so, since Bradley’s story is truly one of the history books and an inspirational journey that truly knows what it means to start from the bottom before hitting it big. Take that, Drake.
For over 40 years, Bradley toiled and scraped by living in the Brooklyn projects with very little education and performing both odd jobs and as a wig donning James Brown impersonator. With a passion for music that wouldn’t be squashed despite never once making a living from his work, Bradley at age 62 finally dropped his debut album No Time for Dreaming, a work of true passion and love; brimming with emotion and the world weariness that his hard knock life brings down on him constantly. He watches over his mother following the murder of his brother despite their relationship never really being that rosy. He lives in a building that’s constantly getting shot up, and barely living at that since he’s constantly in danger of losing his own housing. He lived an almost transitory life on the road for decades, but never because of his music. When the album dropped in 2011, Rolling Stone named it one of the 50 best of the year.
In his first documentary feature, director Poull Brien gets to the heart and, indeed, soul of Bradley in a no nonsense fashion. At 74 minutes there isn’t a lot of room for the superfluous or overly laudatory, but given the extraordinary nature of Bradley’s life and the minimal amount of rock star image that he has at the moment, it’s a well crafted piece of work. He’s an extraordinary person making his way as an old man in a young man’s game, and despite some fairly just quibbles about his lot in life, he’s never grown cynical about what he does. Everything life has given him – both positive and negative – Bradley has put back into his music and given back to his audience in spades.
Aside from also being more factually accurate than the similarly themed Searching for Sugar Man, Brien also leaves room for glimpses of Bradley’s personality to show through, keeping the talking heads to a minimum except when to provide context rather than a bunch of anecdotes that don’t go anywhere. Charles isn’t afraid to break down and cry on camera. He’d never be that self-conscious. He squeals with wondrous glee when he gets a glimpse of his first ever music video. Perhaps most interestingly, though, is how Charles might not even know how to actually be himself on stage when not hiding behind the James Brown Jr. persona he crafted for himself. Instead of simply droning on about why Bradley’s so great and inspiring to anyone with a dream, this is an actual film with great love for his subject through the use of these little moments. Of course, if you were to ask Bradley, he wouldn’t say they were so little.