Interview: Poull Brien, “Charles Bradley: Soul of America”


Filmmaker Poull Brien

Charles Bradley: Soul of America, Sound + Vision's opening night film, tells the inspiring story of soul singer Charles Bradley, who finally found fame at the age of 62 The film was directed by music enthusiast Poull Brien and is his feature debut. Brien spoke with FilmLinc Daily about meeting Charles Bradley, the process of making the film, and the central role of music in all of his work.

When did you first hear about Charles Bradley?

It was 2010 and there was this Charles Bradley song, “The World (Is Going Up in Flames),” which wasn’t out yet. It was only issued as a 45 at that point. You couldn’t download it anywhere online. There was no information about Charles. He wasn’t an artist they were promoting at all. So, his album was just kind of sitting there on the shelf, waiting for eventual release. But I didn’t know any of this, I just heard a great song, and thought, I really love that tune. I kept replaying it, and I reached out to the record label and told them I’d like to direct the video for them. And they were like, oh, it just happens we were thinking about doing that right now. So, I did that and that led to the doc. It was really interesting how just hearing one song really changed my life for three years.

How did you become interested in doing a feature length movie?

When that happened, I told Alex, who played me that song, "Oh, you should just produce this." So, he came to NY and we shot. That day that we were shooting, Charles and I were talking the whole day and he was telling me about the album and its crazy story. And then Alex was like, “Hey, I have some money, if you want to do a short doc on one of this guy’s shows or something.” And then it just sort of grew naturally out of there. But it was very fortuitous because we were actually right there shooting during this whole ramp up. Literally starting from when nobody was calling him and nothing was happening other than this music video.

The movie balances Charles’ personal life and performance footage. Did you ever consider making a film about the music, or was it always intended to be about his life?

No, his personal story is the whole thing for me. I wasn’t trying to do a documentary just about music. I mean, I love his music and that’s the reason that I found him, but it was really about his story. You don’t really hear too many 62 year old guys that are putting out their first album.

You include some very intimate details about Charles’ personal life. Was he at all resistant to opening up about those things?

That’s the really interesting thing about Charles—he’s so open. And he was so welcoming, too. You’ve got to imagine a dude in his position. He’s always wanted some success and to be able to be a musician and put out albums, and he’s never really been able to do it. You know, he’s been playing for $60 a night doing James Brown impersonations. So, he welcomed me in with open arms, welcomed us all in with open arms. And not only that, but introduced me to everybody in his scene. It was a really unique experience. There was no trying to get him to do this, or trying to manipulate him in any way. It was all 100% open. It was really cool. It was also cool, not just as a filmmaker, but as a person to be able to suddenly be such good friends with a guy whose world I knew nothing about. Like you go there and you start hearing all these things about how he was homeless as a teenager, how he was sleeping in abandoned buildings and on the subway, and all this crazy stuff that’s happened to him. I was just like, “Wow, I know nothing about what hard times are.” You would just lose your mind over how sweet this guy was. I mean, he’ll hug you in two seconds and he’ll tell you his life story within the first two minutes of talking to him.

Was his family equally open?

Not quite as much. Nobody’s like Charles. There’s no other Charles. But they were certainly welcoming to us. They were really sweet. Much sweeter than some of the stories you hear about them. You know, just inviting random people into their home to film them. They were so cool. And so we would end up there around Thanksgiving and all these holidays. We were there while Charles was decorating his Christmas tree, hanging out with his mom. It was really cool, having this whole other world open up.

The film is very tight at only 74 minutes long. How much time did you spend filming with him, and how much footage did you end up with?

We had thirty-four or so filming days. The thing is, there was a lot more material of the stuff that he went through before his success happened, before the album came out. But how much of that do you really need? There was a comment by somebody who wrote an article about the film who said his entire 20 years in California working as a cook and trying to make it as a James Brown impersonator was summarized by us in one line. And it is, because how much of that do you really want to see before you get back to the main story? The heart of the story is what’s happening right now. There was a lot more material. There are tons of stories. And that was the hardest thing. You know, actually, this is the first time I’ve really realized that the hardest thing was figuring out how to condense his personal story into just the right amount, so that it would feel balanced with the story that’s happening now. We spent months on that—a billion different edits.

What was that process like, of going through the different edits? Did the film’s focus change much throughout the editing process?

With Stuart McCardle, my DP, we were shooting and then editing every night. And we ended up with a cut and showed it to a bunch of people and they were like, “This could be great, but it’s definitely not great yet.” We tried to push it as far as we could go together. At that point, when we were getting that kind of feedback, I felt like I needed a fresh perspective. So I brought on this other editor, Adriana Pacheco. She was amazing. She just came in with a totally fresh perspective. We worked together for 12 days or something like that after she watched the footage. And that was where the biggest changes took place. It wasn’t that it was a lot of new material. It was restructuring and fitting it together and figuring out what you could eliminate.

Prior to making this film, you made documentary and narrative shorts, commercials, and music videos. How was the process of making this film different from your previous work?

The amount of material. It’s hard to wrap your head around that much material. The interviews would go on for an hour or two and there’s all sorts of interesting stories. It’s insane. It could be five movies. And the performances too—they’re really cool, because those first performances were Charles’ first real exposure. So those group of shows—it was watching something totally new. You can see it in the film: there are moments when you feel like you’re seeing something that’s so powerful. Like when Charles is singing “Loving You Baby” and his hands start shaking while holding the microphone. You almost want to keep showing it and show the whole song. And then the people after. There are so many people there gathered around and just hugging him and loving him. There was nothing hard about the shoot. The hardest thing by far was the edit and trying to figure out how to make a story out of all this stuff and really just how to kill your babies. That was really difficult.

Do you feel that music is central to all of your work?

Yeah, my favorite part of any project is when I get the edit done and I can drop the music in. It just comes alive. And the whole time you’re editing for story but imagining how cool it’s going to be when you get the music over it, you know? I would definitely do more music-based projects, but it’s more about finding these new environments and these new opportunities. You sometimes luck into them you and you just kind of follow where that path takes you. With Charles, this thing was totally unexpected. I was not planning on being a documentarian, not planning on doing a soul music documentary. It’s interesting to me, the way these things pop up unexpectedly. 

Charles Bradley: Soul of America screens Friday, July 26 at 6:30pm with Poull Brien and star Charles Bradley in person for Q&A as part of our Sound + Vision festival. 

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