Director Poull Brien was nursing a pint of Guinness in the Driskill Hotel Monday afternoon when an official email came in from SXSW. His film "Charles Bradley: Soul of America" had received such a positive response from its first two screenings that the festival was giving it a so-called "buzz" screening today (March 13) at 11 a.m. at the Stateside Theatre.
The news stunned Brien, who had not shown the film to an audience before Friday's world premiere, as he shifted into messenger mode to alert his producers, publicist and friends about the bonus screening.
The film is Brien's directorial debut, an outgrowth of an offer to direct a music video for the singer. It has no distribution yet and while it closes with a clear picture of who Bradley is as an artist, it opens with him performing his James Brown impersonation show at a Brooklyn nightclub.
The decision to open the film with Bradley putting on his JB wig, Brien notes, "was absolutely the hardest decision to make in the movie. How do you bring in the past and engage the audience? There is so much you need to know for the payoff of the story. We built the film through his songs and one of his songs led us into his past."
That song, "Why is it So Hard?," talks about the difficulties Bradley had in his attempts to earn a living as an entertainer in the United States, but it becomes a metaphor for the entire film. He lives in the projects in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and spends a considerable amount of time caring for his mother who had abandoned him as a youth. With the reading skills of a first-grader, according to his tutor in the film, Bradley has spent most of his life moving around the East Coast taking jobs as a cook and working small gigs; for a short while. he took a similar route in Alaska and California.
Eventually he returned home to Brooklyn to care for his mother and work under the name Black Velvet. Gabriel Roth from Daptone Records took an interest in Black Velvet and their initial sessions together failed to yield much. Things changed when Bradley turned another chapter of personal pain - his nephew murdering his brother -- into two songs, "The World (Is Going Up in Flames)" and "Heartaches and Pain" that were released as a single prior to the album. As the film shows, a creative fuse was lit.
Brien, a New York-based filmmaker with some music videos under his belt, was working construction in Aspen, Colo., when he heard Bradley's music. He contacted Daptone, the label known as the home of Sharon Jones, and offered to make a music video, but quickly found himself shooting an feature-length documentary that uses the days leading up to the release of the album, Bradley's first, as a time line to explore his life.
"It took the buzz of Sharon Jones to put out Charles' album," Brien says. "They put him out on the road with Sharon" -- which makes for some heart-warming footage - ""and so many people were rooting for this guy that if he did an album half as good as he did it would have been a success."
"Soul of America" follows him as he records and releases his first album, "No Time for Dreaming." The Dunham/Daptone release landed in the top 50 of the Village Voice Pazz and Jop critics poll. Released in January 2011, Bradley was one of the mist buzzed-about performers at last year's SXSW.
"The amazing thing is his attitude," says Brien." The one thing he takes from the Bible is the golden rule - to be to good to others, to treat others as you would want them to treat you. He is so positive, and he has had such a hard life. You can feel it when he sings. One of my great goals is to get him out of the projects and if nothing else happens with this film, that would make me happiest."
"Charles Bradley: Soul of America" also screens March 16 and 17.