America still has the power to shock. In a nice way. While manufactured, ersatz versions of the good ol’ rags to riches story abound in shows like American Idol, and even in various “reality TV” vehicles, genuine bolts from the blue still happen. Charles Bradley is one and thankfully someone with a camera followed him while it happened.

At 62, Charles Bradley must have thought whatever blue was left in his life had lost its bolt long ago. Gigging in hole-in-the-wall night clubs in his native New York, wailing in front of small crowds of talking, boozing punters as a James Brown impersonator (stage name “Black Velvet”), Bradley’s career was not so much heading into a cul-de-sac as paying off a mortgage there.

A chance meeting with an executive from the always excellent Dap Tones records, an invitation to lay some tracks with that label which has become adept at spotting authentic talent perhaps at the back-end of its arc (think Shirley Jones) and a breakthrough album – “No Time for Dreaming” and Charles Bradley makes the moves from Projects to Prospect.

The “Soul” of the title refers, of course, to the bottom-ended, entendre-ridden, brass-driven genre of music popularised in the 1970’s. This is indeed Bradley’s universe, even if his performance sytle sometimes tips too far towards James Brown parody and the 1960’s version of it (Memo to Charles: ditch the jumpsuit, man. It ain’t cool). But the title also refers to Bradley himself. Here’s a man who’s love of life and of humanity is clear and despite the knocks and the set-backs – family rejection, poverty and the loss of loved ones – there is a spirit that rises above. He is indeed the kind of soul that America sadly needs.

This film follows Bradley as he is about to launch his first album. We are introduced to his ailing mother, for whom he cares devotedly, and are shown his room at her house, which is in the basement. It’s a mattress on the floor, surrounded by water pipes and concrete. His own apartment is in one of those towering public housing monstrosities in the Bed-Stuy area of New York, reached by a graffiti-stained and piss-smelly stairwell. He stays at his mom’s when it just gets too hairy at the Projects. The “rags” part of his story are about as threadbare as you can get in the land of the free.

The “riches” part is building. The launch of his album is of course a massive success, with sales pushing for record-breaking status at Dap Tones and his subsequent tour – replete with cheering fans and full houses – is a triumph.

For all the gold of his story, “Soul of America” sags a little in parts. The dramatic ellipse, so easily established, falters and the opportunity to build to a crescendo is rather lost, especially given the story and the thumping Dap Tones-soaked soundtrack at director Poull Brien’s disposal. The final scenes, which ought to be full of power and passion, fade off into the distance a little too much like the songs on the edges of the vinyl records Dap Tones still proudly press out.

Other technical issues grate a little, such as the thick, occasionally impenetrable Brooklyn and Harlem accents which are aided by text sub-titles in part, but not, inexplicably, in others.

But, for the story and the soundtrack alone, “Soul of America” soars like a Charles Bradley high note. His story embodies the belief in life’s joy, no matter how late it arrives, captured in one of James Brown’s own iconic lines; “I feel good. I knew that I would.”

THE SKINNY

Title – Soul of America
Makers – Sam Connelly and Ovasen Post
How to Catch it – DVD
Couch Time – 74 Mins
High Point – The music
Low Point – Dramatic line never takes off

 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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