While there's much to love about Finding Joseph I: The HR From Bad Brains Documentary, out now from MVD Distributors, there are a few things that will raise an eyebrow or two in even the most casual of fans. Still, my minor misgivings aside, the film is a remarkably intimate portrait of a remarkable, near-mythical figure in both the harDCore and punk rock worlds.
While ostensibly a standard bio-pic, the film assumes that a viewer has some awareness of the story of both HR and the Bad Brains. Given the lack of a narrator, a viewer is thrown down into a quick overview of the back-story of brothers Paul and Earl Hudson. Paul, later to be known as HR (Human Rights), remains, of course, one of the greatest vocalists of the punk era, despite a life-long battle with mental issues, issues that have gotten worse in recent years as the doc explains. Still, as Earl, later the drummer for Bad Brains, and HR tell their tale, they were happy, world-traveled kids who eventually found their way to both punk and reggae, and subsequently changed an entire form of music. The incendiary, otherworldly energy of Bad Brains was due, in large part, to the charismatic and energetic front-man HR and here in this section of the film, a long-time fan is rewarded with a few firsthand insights into the creation of the band's best material, and the singer's vision of a new form of punk.
As HR, and sometimes his brother, explored reggae sounds more thoroughly, the band's sound changed, going from an all-out assault on the senses to music meant to elevate the spirit and uplift races. One of the major successes of Finding Joseph I: The HR From Bad Brains Documentary is that these Bad Brains efforts are treated with a great deal of respect and film-maker James Lathos is to be commended for considering all of HR's efforts with the same sort of seriousness that others might only show to the early ROIR-era stuff, you know? I watched the film and gained a bit more understanding of the band's progression and the variety of styles they were committed to blending. That they succeeded so many times is extraordinary now, especially when one considers the likes of Sublime (shown here) who took a kind of white boy watered-down reggae to far greater levels of success than those kids ever deserved.
What remains here is a portrait of an artist with the utmost integrity. And if HR wasn't always making material with the obvious force and power of "Pay To Cum", he was remaining true to himself and his muse. Here is the rare individual, like Joe Strummer, who remained committed to the form and the promise of punk even as tastes changed around him. Littered with talking heads -- Duff McKagan from Guns and Roses, Skeeter Thompson from D.C.'s own Scream, Ian MacKaye, Vernon Reid from Living Colour, Angelo from Fishbone -- the film spends a bit of time on the enduring legacy of the music of HR and Bad Brains but doesn't beat that idea to death, preferring instead to devote more attention to the fellow himself in the present day.
In the final stretch of Finding Joseph I: The HR From Bad Brains Documentary, we see HR today, ambling around D.C. in a blonde wig and strumming his guitar. The sight is a pitiful one and I think it's meant to evoke some real sympathy in a viewer so there was little that felt truly exploitative here. And by the time that HR gets married, there's a sense that things are moving in a more positive direction. Having been treated for his mental issues, HR seems healthier and it's in this section that perhaps the director could have spent more time in explaining where HR sees himself today, or his plans for new music, or even his regrets.
Still, that feels like nitpicking as Finding Joseph I: The HR From Bad Brains Documentary is a real window into the life of one of the most important vocalists of the punk generation, and the front-man who influenced generations of performers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Whatever its minor faults, Finding Joseph I: The HR From Bad Brains Documentary is a revelation, shining more light on its subject than perhaps any previous film ever has. I think any fan of Bad Brains will walk away from this one with a renewed respect for HR as both a singer, and as a man pursuing a path that few would have the courage and conviction to follow.
If you would like to win a copy of Finding Joseph I: The HR From Bad Brains documentary, courtesy of MVD Entertainment Group, just drop me an email at kenixfan [at] gmail [dot] com. First response gets it.