'Living on Soul': Film Review | LAFF 2017

Courtesy of LA Film Festival
This concert film should have everyone cheering.

This doc chronicles a concert at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater featuring Sharon Jones and other top soul, funk and gospel performers.

In December 2014, a group of soul, funk and gospel singers associated with Daptone Records presented a three-night concert at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem that almost literally raised the roof. Now, documentary filmmakers Jeff Broadway and Cory Bailey have chronicled that concert and incorporated some background on many of the performers and musicians. The result, Living on Soul, which had its world premiere at the LA Film Festival, is a rousing film that takes on added poignancy as a result of the death of Daptone star Sharon Jones at the end of last year. Among concert films, this has to be one of the most stirring in recent memory.

In her knockout performance at the show, Jones (the subject of the 2015 Barbara Kopple doc, Miss Sharon Jones!) talks about her battle with cancer and announces she is cancer-free, which makes the recurrence of the disease soon afterwards even more devastating. But her electrifying performance attests to her extraordinary talent. Some of the other performers may be less familiar to viewers, but there are dynamic sets by the Como Mamas, Naomi Shelton, Charles Bradley and Antibalas, among others.

The concert scenes are beautifully filmed against a blazing red backdrop that highlights the performers and musicians. When Jones takes off her shoes and dances across the stage, the camera is right there with her to mirror her energy. In fact, the cinematography and editing always work to show the acts at their best.

One might have appreciated a bit more background on some of the artists, but the offstage and backstage scenes are always vibrant. Billy Mitchell, a historian of the Apollo, points out dressing rooms where Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and many others once prepared for their shows.

Among the most intriguing scenes are those at the modest Brooklyn offices of Daptone Records. Gabe Roth, who helped found the company, wrote many of their songs and performs as well, comes across as especially engaging. He admits that his background growing up Jewish in California would not seem the most likely pedigree for a soul music producer. And in one segment, a singer says that her first reaction upon meeting the Daptone team was, “What do you white boys know about funk?” But the dedication of Roth and his colleagues is clearly heartfelt.

In fact, one of the unstated but most effective undercurrents in the film is the rapport between blacks and whites that underlies this historic concert. Several of the white and black performers banter easily and unselfconsciously about their friendships. It isn’t until late in the film that the camera shows the packed auditorium, and we get to see the large number of enthusiastic white fans at a predominantly black music concert. Living on Soul offers a modest glimmer of hope about the possibility of bridging some of the divides in our polarized country. But first and foremost, it sings and sizzles.

Production company: Valentine Street Productions
Director-producer-cinematographers: Jeff Broadway, Cory Bailey

Executive producers: The Orchard, Apollo Theater, Jonelle Procope, Mikki Shepard, Jean Charles Thibaut-Rogman, Intrepid Mediaworks, Jonathan Chaupin
Editor: Lenny Mesina
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival

96 minutes