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Tale of Screaming Eagle of Soul will stir yours

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Bradley  lets loose  on stage  in a scene  from the  emotional doc Charles Bradley: Soul of America.

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Bradley lets loose on stage in a scene from the emotional doc Charles Bradley: Soul of America.

Charles Bradley's life truly is fodder for a heartbreaking soul song -- and it's hard to say sometimes, watching this doc, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

The singer known as the Screaming Eagle of Soul has battled demons and bad luck his whole life, and there's no question that it informs his performances, giving them a genuine quality that elevates them.

But sometimes it seems the suffering he's endured can't be outweighed by any artistic success it might have inspired.

This tender but far-from-hagiographic doc by director Poull Brien follows Bradley in the months prior to the release of his debut album... at the age of 62.

After years of performing as Black Velvet, a James Brown tribute act, he has finally achieved his dream, hooking up with New York's Daptone records, the label behind Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. He has a crack R&B band of bearded hipsters behind him and a tour with Jones in the works.

Bradley hopes the album, No Time for Dreaming, will be the ticket out of the Brooklyn housing project where he lives with his parrot, while struggling to keep up with the mortgage payments on his 86-year-old mother's house.

The real depths of Bradley's misery, however, are difficult to comprehend, and the filmmakers cleverly reveal the details over the course of the film. It would spoil the arc of the film to enumerate them here, but suffice to say the singer has endured abuse, homelessness, poverty and more. He's often contemplated suicide.

Despite this, he remains mostly upbeat, especially when he's rehearsing or performing, but he swings from almost childlike exuberance to pits-of-despair depression.

Although they're all vying for his success, there's something just the tiniest bit off-putting about the way the Daptone folks talk about and to Charles, in a tone that's slightly patronizing.

But you can't argue with the fact that they've recognized his talent and given him a golden ticket, and he is not squandering it.

Every time he gets onstage, he delivers, and his face is as expressive as his voice. When he's singing, he's channelling pain and joy in equal measure; at the end of a song, you're not sure if the moisture on his cheeks is sweat or tears.

And by the end of film, it won't be sweat on your cheeks. Even if you're familiar with how Bradley's story turns out, it won't lessen the impact of the stirring final act.

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2013 C3

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