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After decades playing James Brown, Charles Bradley finds his own voice

Soul of America follows the extraordinary journey of singer Charles Bradley in the months leading up to the 2011 release of his debut album No Time for Dreaming.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Charles Bradley: Soul of America
Directed by
Poull Brien
Charles Bradley

It's a man's world, the song says, but it's not every man's world, and certainly not Charles Bradley's.

The first scene in the gritty feel-good documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America finds the veteran soul singer fixing up his hair to epic James Brown proportions so as to better compare to the late Soul Brother No. 1.

Bradley, billed as "Black Velvet," had been imitating Brown for more than 40 years. But as the film opens, the mimicking is coming to an end. "Now," he says in the pro-underdog music doc, "I'm gonna do Charles Bradley." Which he does, to star-turning effect.

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In Poull Brien's feature-length directorial debut, Bradley recalls key incidents and heartaches (as do family members, whose stories sometimes conflict). Bradley was abandoned by his mother and later became a vagabond uneducated teen. He lost his first band to the Vietnam War and his brother to a thug.

Eventually adopted by a hipster Brooklyn music label, the all-heart retro-soul singer makes his first record at age 62. "Why is it so hard," he sings, not just about his own plight, "to make it in America." It's a question from the gut and from the heart, which are same places the film aims for, and hits so well. – Brad Wheeler

Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, to June 6.

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