To Charles Bradley, the American dream felt particularly elusive. “I’ve been struggling for 42 years to make it in the [music] industry,” he states at the beginning of the new documentary bearing his name. It’s difficult to believe that someone could keep the faith for so long without becoming bitter or angry, or just giving up. Yet as Soul of America reveals, this is exactly what has happened to Charles Bradley.
On paper, his remarkable journey defies belief. As much as he represents the fulfillment of the American dream, his life also bears the scars of the American nightmare. To include it all in a review would not only cheapen it, but it would rob the viewer of the joy and heartbreak involved when seeing it unfold on screen, in Bradley’s own words.
For years, he has performed as a James Brown impersonator: James Brown, Jr., a.k.a. Black Velvet. But if Bradley’s misfortunes might come across as cliché to the uninitiated, his foray into success does not. He was never discovered. He introduced himself to Gabe Roth, co-founder of Daptone Records, because he’d heard they were looking for singers. Yet, his first recording for the label didn’t take off. It would be two more years before success would be within his reach.
Although it’s never stated, it’s obvious that what propelled Bradley into recognition was being chosen to open for Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, another band on the Daptone label. Just like you can’t feel the full impact of what Bradley’s been through until you see him explain it; you can’t imagine how incredible he is on stage until you witness it for yourself. Bradley brings something intangible to the songs that goes beyond his lyrics or even his passionate, soulful voice.
Tommy Brenneck, Bradley’s guitarist and musical collaborator, says that he “wants to reach every single person in the audience.” We all know that documentaries can manipulate their audiences, but there’s no way to deny Bradley’s immense presence on stage and his ability to connect deeply with people. That’s something you can’t create in an editing room.
Director Poull Brien structures the film in a clever way by setting it up as a countdown to the release of Bradley’s album No Time For Dreaming. This ensures that the audience also anticipates Bradley’s success. Soul of America has a straightforward visual style that captures the color and at times, the squalor, of Bradley’s environment. Using a handheld camera to follow along as Bradley goes about his life makes us feel like we’re right there with him.
To describe Charles Bradley as the real thing may seem like a hackneyed turn of phrase, but in this case, it couldn’t be truer. It’s not just his talents that are genuine; it’s Bradley as a person. It is impossible not to be moved by his story and to root for him. Seeing Bradley’s success as a performer written out on screen at the end of the film juxtaposed with the goal he has yet to attain is both shocking and saddening. It’s a grim reminder that for many, the American dream is as simple as a roof over one’s head. Although this particular version of the dream might never come true for some, Charles Bradley gives us the strength to keep the faith.
Charles Bradley: Soul of America opens tonight at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto, ON and runs through June 6. It’s being distributed by KinoSmith and will also be screening in the following cities:
June 1 – Carbon Arc Cinema, Halifax
June 14-20 – Globe Cinema, Calgary