Friday, March 21, 2014

Reuben Atlas' BROTHERS HYPNOTIC tells of a literal "band" of brothers, its history and music

How to be "indepen-dent"? That's a tricky one, and it's a question that the new docu-mentary, BROTHERS HYPNOTIC, addresses in ways that are both obvious and discreet. After playing festivals -- Los Angeles to SxSW, Hot Docs to Urbanworld -- this popular audience favorite via first-time filmmaker Reuben Atlas (shown below) is having its worldwide theatrical premiere this coming week, here in New York City at Maysles Cinema.

The first thing you may notice about the film is how quickly you're captured by the "sound" these brothers make. It's original, beautiful and, yes -- a little "hypnotic." And when, very soon, someone makes the point, "Anything that's worth anything lasts long!" you'll realize why you're listening perhaps a bit more keenly than usual. There are things worth hearing and considering here.

We're introduced to the "brothers" early on (a few of them are shown below), with a total of maybe seven in all. That count keeps climbing as the movie meanders forward. Finally, all told, there seem to be 16 boys, seven girls, three moms and a dad -- Philip Cohran, an old-time liberal, anti-establishment fellow possessing both musical talent and the sort of school-of-life-and-hard-knocks bona fides that have earned him permanent respect, from his family and much of the world-at-large. Phil's love for and talent at music, as well as his having to live and work as a Black American before, during and after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, has given the man a distinct lack of trust of any-thing remotely "establishment."

All of this Phil Cohran has managed to instill pretty heavily into his sons, too, and so Mr. Atlas -- over four years time and traveling with the brothers across four different countries -- shows us this troupe at work and in performance (on the streets, in concerts), amassing a large following that includes the likes of Mos Def, Prince, and Earth Wind & Fire, and trying to come to terms with the possibility of success.

The big question of the film is whether or not that success will be on the Hypnotic Brothers' own terms (and those of their dad, shown above) or more the terms of the establishment. What is clear, from the beginning and all the way through the film, is that these guys have immense talent and willpower. As well as, to some extent, needs and ambitions perhaps somewhat different from those of their dad -- who always insisted that the kids' primary result of their music should be given back to the Black community from which they all sprang.

Mr. Atlas seems to hone to the fly-on-the-wall aspect of documentary film-making, keeping himself out of the picture as much as possible. He also prefers to show rather than tell. The result has both accomplishments and drawbacks. Consequently, though we get the sense that all is not super-crispy in terms of the family's needs and desires, we are generally left out of any discussions of any depth (if these even occur; it's hard to tell).

At one point, the group fires its long-time agent and goes with a new fellow. Why? How did this happen? Was there heavy disagreement? We never know. We hear quite a bit about (and a little bit from) Dad, the three moms takes turns speaking, and some of the brothers are clearly more talkative than others (or maybe were given permission to be).

The sisters don't figure much here, it seems. Feminism -- as some of us know it, at least -- does not appear applicable. (Also, chances are that, out of the 27 people in this family, one or two of them might by gay or lesbian. But of course that never surfaces, either.)

At one point, the brothers are offered a contract with Atlantic Records. In most music documentaries, this moment would be the climax of that long road traveled toward success. Not with this family. And yet, even this opportunity, which comes knocking yet again, is hardly lost. (I suspect that the talent level here is so immense that the Hypnotic Brothers can get away with stuff that other groups wouldn't think of trying.)

Toward the end of this consistently interesting, occasionally frustrating film, one of the moms explains that what she gets from the boys is "a message of unity." I got that, too, but I'd call it somewhat "enforced" unity. Though I'm not quite sure who the enforcer(s) is (or are).

Brothers Hypnotic begins its week-long theatrical run at Maysles Cinema, as part of the popular Documentary in Bloom series, this coming Monday, March 24, through Sunday, March 30. Special note: Director Reuben Atlas and members of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble will participate in post-film Q&As following the sscreening on Friday, March 28 and Saturday, March 29. 

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