“I been doing James Brown since I was 14 years old. Now I’m gonna do Charles Bradley.” So begins Charles Bradley: Soul of America, a documentary profile of the titular singer, who a couple of years back, at age 62, released No Time for Dreaming, his first album, on Daptone, the Brooklyn retro soul label that is also home to the similarly belatedly discovered Sharon Jones (who makes a brief appearance here). The feature-length debut of Poull Brien, the film wrings some artificial suspense from a framing device that counts down the days to No Time’s release, but there’s no shortage of genuine drama in its subject’s story, which Bradley, along with his family and collaborators, sketches out for Brien’s cameras over the course of Soul of America’s modest runtime. As standard biographical documentary filmmaking goes, Soul of America is a respectful and respectable, if not especially rigorous work. But the combined allure of Bradley the eccentric, emotionally vulnerable raconteur and Bradley the dynamite, hopelessly magnetic performer make it hugely recommendable.
Bradley was born in Gainsville, Florida, but was taken by his mother to live in Brooklyn when he was still a child. He left home at 14, sleeping on subway cars, and eventually found his way to Maine, where he worked for a time as a chef and where his singing talents were first noticed, if not sufficiently explored—his band wound up getting drafted to Vietnam. Years of financial struggle, illness and family tragedy ensued—Bradley tells a story of attempting to plan his suicide in a pizza joint one day when the Eagles came on the radio and saved his life. All the while, Bradley developed his James Brown imitation act “Black Velvet,” which was eventually noticed by Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth, who arranged for some writing and recording sessions, supplied Bradley with some live dates in support of Jones, and, eventually, oversaw the development of an entire album of material. So this fiery sexagenarian African-American wound up playing old school soul music with a bunch of young white guys with beards. And it sounds pretty incredible.
Most of that is backstory, but there are some nice moments caught by Brien in the present tense: Bradley sewing his own jumpsuit, an outfit cobbled together from thrift store finds; Bradley caring for his elderly mother, despite having almost no money; Bradley being visited by a tutor, who reveals that the singer can only read and write at a first grade level; Bradley marveling at the very notion of pumpkin beer; or Bradley’s endearing disbelief at his own popularity once the press starts previewing his record and accompanying release party—which is sold out by the time Bradley shows up. That show seems riveting, giving us a good taste of what Bradley has absorbed and made his own after a lifetime of lessons in soul singing, lessons taken at the university of not only James Brown, but Otis Redding, Teddy Pendergrass and Al Green. I would have loved more extensive performance sequences, or at least one song played out in its entirety, but Brien keeps things pretty clipped and tight, preferring to move the story forward rather than showcase the music itself.