Charles Bradley: Soul of America: SXSW Review

Soulful portrait of a brilliant R&B singer discovered late in a hardship-filled life.

Poull Brien presents audiences with the moving tale of this aspiring singer, who must endure decades of hardship before making his big break.

AUSTIN - A moving encounter with a singer whose big break didn't come until retirement age, Charles Bradley: Soul of America offers a vivid working-class backdrop and a voice expressive enough to wow the most demanding Soul music fans. Commercial appeal is enhanced by the surprising success of Bradley's 2011 debut and cred-enhancing behind-the-scenes ties to Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse.

We meet Bradley in a Brooklyn housing project much too tough for a man this sweet-natured. When things get nasty at home, the 62 year-old beds down in his elderly mother's unfinished basement; as we learn gradually through interviews with other family members, this mother-son relationship has often been far from nurturing.

Bradley, who only recently started learning to read, kicked around the country for decades struggling to make ends meet. But a supposed resemblance to James Brown and an obsession with Brown's stagecraft fueled a continuing interest in performing, and Bradley eventually found a following in New York as "Black Velvet," a Brown impersonator.

Bradley might have remained a local curiosity the rest of his life had he not connected with the Daptone Records crew, soul revivalists best known for working with Winehouse and issuing records by Jones. Recognizing raw talent to be molded, they set to work pairing him with suitable material.

Interviews with producer and bandleader Thomas Brenneck illuminate a process of writing material and making existing songs speak to Bradley's pain-filled biography, moving from 7-inch singles to the LP, No Time For Dreaming, released in 2011. Filmmaker Poull Brien uses that debut date as a centerpiece, and while the repeated "x days to release" title cards make the structure feel contrived, the format does generate some drama for viewers who don't know how well the record performed in its neo-soul niche.

Those viewers and others will be gratified to see Bradley's eventual encounters with a mass of fans who embrace him for himself instead of his James Brown act; few will be unmoved by his devotion to a mother who abandoned him for long stretches of his youth. And only the soulless will fail to respond to footage of this passionate, powerful singer doing his thing onstage.


Director: Poull Brien

Producer: Alexander Brough

Director of photography: Stuart McCardle

Music: Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band

Editors: Adriana Pacheco, Stuart McCardle, Poull Brien

Sales: Kevin Iwashina, Preferred Content

No rating, 74 minutes