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Monday, 19 November 2012 09:45

A great singer is reborn in 'Charles Bradley: Soul of America'

A great singer is reborn in 'Charles Bradley: Soul of America'
Written by pj del
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  • Director: Poull Brien
  • Dates: November 18, 2012

With a little time to spare before the 6:15 p.m. showing of "Charles Bradley: Soul of America" at the St. Louis International Film Festival at the Tivoli, I sauntered over to Meshuggah Café and ordered a hot chocolate.

On the windowsill sat The New York Times Sunday Review. On page one above the fold, "How to Live Without Irony," a brief commentary on irony and hipsterdom by Christy Wampole, offered the following clarion call: "…So rather than scoffing at the hipster -- a favorite hobby, especially of hipsters -- determine whether the ashes of irony have settled on you as well. It takes little effort to dust them away."

Taking an honest look at who you are can be daunting, and consequently, as a culture, we suffer from an authenticity-deficit. If you recognize this diagnosis to be at least partly correct, then the music of Charles Bradley is the prescription.

"Charles Bradley: Soul of America," the first directorial feature by Poull Brien, opens with soul singer Charles Bradley combing a James Brown wig and relating to the audience that he has been impersonating and performing as the famous singer for 40 plus years. Now, at the age of 62, can Charles Bradley shed his impersonation, overcome life's struggles (poverty and homelessness to name just a few) and succeed as a new performer -- himself? Starting at day 50, the countdown begins to Bradley's first album release, "No Time for Dreaming," on January 25, 2011.

Brien's decision to follow Bradley for those 50 days leading up to the album release was brilliant, enabling a documentary narrative that moves in real time, reflects on the past and ends with a "do or die" big moment. But no one could have predicted how "No Time for Dreaming" would be received commercially or critically. Brien kind of rolled the dice and it paid off -- adding a nice little gem to the shelf of America's love for the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story, and this story in particular is heartfelt. Bradley's tears of joy and sorrow are touching because the moments captured by Brien are genuine.

"When he tells the audience 'I love you,' I really believe him," remarks one concert-goer in the film.

Thomas Brenneck, songwriter and member of the Menahan Street Band, recounts the story of how "Why Is It So Hard?" (one of Bradley's most powerful songs) was written. Touring with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings before they received due attention in America, a French fan asked, "Is this band just as big in America as they are here?" At that time, the answer was bluntly no, hence the line "Why is it so hard to make it in America?"

But when Bradley sings it, a line like that carries a whole new meaning. It doesn't feel political or critical, just honest.

George Burns said, "Sincerity -- if you can fake that, you've got it made." Reading Christy Wampole's critique of ironic lifestyles, you learn that some people probably dodge sincerity by hiding behind the cloak of irony. With Charles Bradley sans James Brown, it's a little bit more "what you see it what you get."

Charles Bradley as Charles Bradley is not only authentic music; it's good, infectious, endearing R&B. For any documentary fan -- music documentary in particular -- this film is well worth experiencing.

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