Review: 'Charles Bradley: Soul of America'

Charles Bradley

It might seem like overreaching to call a documentary about a 62-year-old singer no one's ever heard of The Soul of America, but as it turns out, director Poull Brien picked the perfect title for his tender, heartbreaking look at the life and unlikely career of budding soul legend Charles Bradley. Yes, the picture's got soul -- and so, of course, does Bradley's music -- but the really surprising thing about Charles Bradley: Soul of America is the way Brien uses Bradley's story to ask difficult questions about the nature of the modern American dream while also hitting the typical music-doc beats, all in the span of 75 minutes, and without ever being overbearing about any of it.

Brien's sly approach is evident from the movie's opening moments, which find Bradley -- without explanation -- suiting up for one of his regular gigs as "James Brown, Jr.," the (pretty damn credible) Brown impersonation act that's been paying his bills for years. It's an odd way to introduce the story of a singer getting ready to make his true debut, but as the viewer quickly learns, there's nothing ordinary about Bradley's tale -- not the way he was abandoned by his mother, not the way he grew up in abject poverty, not the way he spent most of his life living an intinerant existence, spending time on the streets of New York City before hitchhiking across the country and slowly honing his chops as a live performer.

Part of Charles Bradley: Soul of America's real value lies in the unsentimental way Brien depicts Bradley's existence, both on and off the stage. From the movie's earliest moments, it's obvious you're watching a man with a tremendous amount of talent -- and one who feels fortunate to have any kind of audience, whether they're accepting free passes to his upcoming record release party or clapping him on the back after watching him cover James Brown classics. It can be grim watching Bradley stroll through the projects or sleep in the basement of his mother's Brooklyn home, but it's also instructive for anyone with dreams of stardom -- a desperately necessary counterargument to the gauzy vision of artistic success painted by shows like American Idol and The Voice. This is an artist who's paid his dues repeatedly, and shows no sign of thinking he's ever going to stop paying them.

More importantly, Bradley is, by all accounts, a beautiful person -- and one who's managed to hang onto his pureness of heart even after suffering decades of frustration, loss, and overall disadvantage. He's been shown hatred, but he refuses to stop loving; he's been lied to, but he still speaks from the heart. He's been surrounded by death, and he's ever mindful of how wonderful it is to be alive. And when he takes the stage late in the film and kicks off a performance of his song "Why Is It So Hard" -- with its opening line, "Why is it so hard to make it in America?" -- it doesn't register as a complaint, but a piercingly honest question. In a country where simple dedication and honest labor are supposed to be your keys to the gateway of success, and where God-given talent is supposed to be held at a premium, why are we only just now hearing the music of Charles Bradley? Soul of America is an inspirational movie, but it's also a damning indictment of the status quo.

Bradley doesn't have the answers to his question, and neither does Brien; it's enough that -- aside from making you want to dance, sing, hug Charles Bradley, and buy all his records -- the movie makes you think. This is an important film -- and one that treats the viewer to a damn fine soundtrack in the bargain.

Charles Bradley: Soul of America is currently available via Amazon Instant Video.

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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