Brothers Hypnotic: Film Review

Rollicking look at an unusual musical career.

Reuben Atlas introduces a literal "band of brothers" trying to make it in New York City.

NEW YORK — A legacy of boundary-pushing jazz bears more populist fruit in Brothers Hypnotic, Reuben Atlas' introduction to the Chicago-bred, New York-based Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Musically engaging throughout if not always as psychologically probing as some of its characters merit, the doc should fare well on the fest circuit and in specialty bookings. Above all it should generate sales and concert bookings for the band, who have made a career out of DIY marketing.

Chicago trumpeter Phil Cohran worked with oddball jazz legend Sun Ra and more conventional bandleaders; in the '60s he cofounded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, whose influence on non-mainstream jazz is hard to overstate. He also fathered at least around two dozen children with different women, some of whom lived together in an arrangement that makes more sense in context of '60s/'70s radical politics.

Many of those kids were taught to play instruments, some performing onstage as early as three years old. Pre-dawn rehearsals were routine; and acquiring a distrust of the recording industry was almost as important as learning scales. Little surprise, then, that when eight brothers left home as the Hypnotic Brass, they took to performing on New York street corners where every dollar they made went in their pockets. When Atlantic Records came courting, they were tempted -- but rejected the offer.

Atlas speaks enough to the individual musicians to make that decision seem sane, then follows as they embark on an alternative career path -- eventually dealing with a small artist-owned record label and embarking on world tours of jazz fests. Plenty of performance footage captures music that is hard to pigeonhole, leaning toward familiar New Orleans idioms but contemporary enough to be embraced, say, by rapper Mos Def, for whom they briefly played backup.

Though we get a sense of fraternal tensions and intergenerational disagreement, the film is sometimes too polite to ask hard questions, forcing us to read between the lines especially when it comes to ways Cohran may have alienated his kids. Still, the largely well-photographed doc offers just enough intimate material (like scenes of a reunion in Cohran's home) to keep the portrait from feeling sanitized.

Production Companies: ITVS, National Black Programming Consortium, NPS Dutch TV

Director: Reuben Atlas

Producers: Reuben Atlas, Sam Pollard

Directors of photography: Dan Fridman, Sean Porter, Ari Issler, Reuben Atlas

Music: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

Editor: Keiko Deguchi

No rating, 84 minutes