Radical, brash and even sentimental, Reuben Atlas' debut documentary Brothers Hypnotic is an unconventional look at a decidedly non-traditional band making its New York debut at the Sound + Vision series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this weekend. A third year law student, Reuben Atlas was perhaps an unlikely filmmaker to tell the story of eight talented brothers from a rough Chicago neighborhood who formed a brass band, skirting the music establishment to do things on their own.
Their group, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, took to the streets of New York busking in various high traffic areas of Manhattan, giving powerful performances of their not easily defined music that captured the attention of celebs and the music industry alike. But their anti-establishment ethos, a trait passed down by their charismatic father, brought the band and their music to the streets, skirting the more conventional paths to fame. Atlas happened upon them in Union Square playing to the crowds and the chance meeting tempted Atlas to re-evaluate his career trajectory and pick up a camera.
"I was in my third year of law school and was pretty disenchanted about being a lawyer and my purpose of being a lawyer," Atlas told FilmLinc Daily. "I had been making advocacy videos about people who, in my opinion, had been unfairly incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws… I was walking near Union Square and saw eight of these guys performing out in front of Whole Foods blowing their souls out through their instruments. There was something also about their music with combined elements of funk, hip hop and jazz that I had never heard before, plus the fact they were on the street and had all this talent. It was amazing to me. It was super inspiring."
The eight are the offspring of jazz guru and co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) Phil Cohran, who brought up his large family outside the boundaries of the traditional nuclear family. The group's eight members come from three different mothers, two of which helped raise the children as a communal unit. "I flew out to Chicago and I met their dad and that's when I really felt like I wanted to make a feature documentary about them because he has these ideals that came to light in the 60s and my parents had similar ideals," said Atlas, who had initially wanted to make a documentary short on the group.
Phil Cohran forms an essential story layer of this band, whose idealism and strict adherence to exist outside the mainstream stems from their father's own philosophy on black empowerment and anti-materialism. "I hope the film expresses this parallel connection in how their past is always following them through their father," noted Altlas. "They were always anti-establishment and their family was brave enough to [buck] convention and raise a non-traditional family very successfully in a very tough neighborhood."
Still, the brothers are not against making a buck, but do so on their terms. They reckon that they can make just as much money playing the streets of New York than playing clubs and, though invitations from the likes of Prince and Mos Def spark lively debate about whether they should be an opening band, the brothers' brush with superstardom is quite evident after sharing the stage with Prince at a concert in Ireland. Still, the personal story is supreme as their tight-nit relationship sustains and sometimes wreaks havoc on their band.
"The most powerful moments for me came from their interaction and their relationship with their dad and I think that's the real emotional core of the film, even though the plot is focused on what they decide to do as a band in relationship to the music world," offered Atlas, who is currently in production with his follow-up doc about the community organizing group formerly known as ACORN. "But I quickly realized the heart beat here was in their family story."
Brothers Hypnotic screens Saturday, July 27 as part of Sound + Vision series at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.