There’s sometimes a punishing redundancy to profile documentaries. If the subject has been in the public light for long enough, a profile doc can often feel like a Wikipedia article in motion, like a flip through a scrapbook of events everyone already remembers. There’s an inherent nostalgia to the format that can make the experience pleasant, but ultimately unnecessary if the life being detailed is already well known to the audience. Soul of America, a profile of soul singer Charles Bradley, sidesteps this problem by tackling a subject that has never had his story told on a large scale before. Bradley is in a unique position as a subject in that he struggled to make it in the music business for 42 years before finally recording his debut album, an instant classic titled No Time for Dreaming. Soul of America follows Bradley for the 50 days preceding that album’s release, allowing him to reflect on his troubled past and muse about the promise of his future. Charles Bradley’s life makes for an interesting profile in that he has a long, storied past that’s still fresh to his audience, as it’s only ever been told to them through his songs.
A black soul singer in his early 60s, Charles Bradley is as unlikely of a debut recording artist as any. His eventual success story is remarkable just based on his age alone, but Soul of America makes it out to be even more of an anomaly by providing the details of where he’s been hiding for those 60 years. Bradley had already been performing live music sets before he recorded No Time for Dreaming, but he wasn’t performing original songs. As an impeccable James Brown impersonator performing under the name Black Velvet, Brown had earned the moniker “James Brown Jr.” Although his work as an impersonator was respected for its authenticity, it was a far from glamorous life, as is revealed through scenes touring the home Bradley shares with his aging mother in a cramped housing project, his anecdotes about riding subways to keep warm, and a visit from his tutor, who reveals that he is operating on a 1st grade reading level. As dire as that situation sounds, Bradley is infectiously optimistic about his future and there’s a general sense that things are gradually getting better. His goal through his reading lessons is to be able to write down his own lyrics (instead of relying on the help of his young musician collaborators) and although he is the baby of his family who seemingly loves his mother dearly, his childhood stories make it sound like he takes better care of her now than she did with him in the past. There’s an incredible perseverance at the core of Charles Bradley’s story that makes it all the more satisfying to watch him succeed.
Although Charles Bradley’s perseverance and dedication to his craft despite the shitty, shitty odds is a large part of what makes his story so fascinating, it’s his incredibly emotive personality that shines brightest both in Soul of America and in his studio recordings. There’s an arresting sincerity to the man that you can read on his face just as well as in his voice. Whether he’s meekly asking for Sharon Jones’ autograph, getting giddy over seeing his picture in the New York Post, choking up over how much he loves everyone in the world, or struggling to tell the story of his closest brother’s murder, Bradley is a rawly emotive man. As one of his collaborators puts it, “He wants to reach every single person in the audience” and he has a uniquely genuine quality to his personality that allows him to do just that.
The soul music powerhouse Daptone Records have found a real gem in Charles Bradley both as a talented vocalist & songwriter and as an admirable human being who would have every right to be bitter & distraught, but somehow chose another path. The documentary Soul of America is a great introduction to his story & his personality, but there’s really no substitute to listening to his just as genuine records & live performances. There’s an inspiringly honest sense of hope surrounding Charles Bradley that makes him a worthwhile subject in any format, but the power of his music is what makes him truly special.