Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary
Directed by James Lathos
Small Axe Films; Giraffe Productions; MVD Visual
91 minutes / 2016; 2017

I truly believe it would be hard to argue that the Bad Brains (BB) were one of the top American hardcore groups in the 1980s, and possibly the loudest and fastest of the bunch. As musicians, they are hard to beat. As people? Well… more on that later.

The British-American BB’s lead singer was Paul Hudson, whose name was abbreviated to just HR. As a kid, he was known as “Hunting Rod” for the walking stick he habitually carried, and in the middle days it became “Human Rights,” as in the post-BB group, the HR Band (Human Rights). With the deepening of his Rasta studies, he became Joseph I.  

I was actually excited to see this documentary as, to be honest, I never saw the BB play live, or any of his other bands. I’ve seen some videos though, and they are damn exciting to watch. But what interested me the most is to see what others had to say about him.

There is no doubt this documentary by first time director James Lathos is a love fest for the man. Even though it does not shy away from some of his personal issues and demons, it presents a string of people saying how he “sparked modern punk rock” right to being a “living legend,” which is stated more than once.

Y’know what, yeah, some of that is true. While I don’t believe the BB “sparked” hardcore, they definitely upped it more than a notch that set a very high bar. They were known for their speed, their dexterity, and a brilliant stage show with HR as its center. It was the Dead Boys that turned the BB onto what would become hardcore, and I believe the Dead Boys were the catalyst that truly sparked hardcore, but man, the BB were right at the fore.

Bad Brains, with HR in the forefront
(Earl on the right)
The documentary starts with a history lesson, as these things are wont to do, describing HR’s childhood mostly through his eyes and those of his BB band mate and real life brother, drummer Earl Hudson. They describe a somewhat tumultuous family life that moved around a lot, which scarred HR. Music, though, always seemed a focusing point to center him then.

Over the years, HR fronted many other bands as well as the BB, such as Human Rights, Zion Train, Soul Brains (the reunited BB), and he even sat in with Sublime. Over the years, it almost seems like he was increasingly channeling George Clinton’s haberdasher.

What becomes ever clearer over time is that there was something seriously wrong with him, on which the documentary shines a strong light, which is the advent and crush of mental illness. In his youth and well into the BB, he was a strong user of LSD; and even into his “purer” Rasta days when he reportedly stopped using acid, I cannot imagine his not overindulging in the religion’s holy weed. While not truly defined, it is assumed here (and sounds right to me) that with over use of substances, he has fallen into schizophrenia, including hearing and seeing what’s not necessarily there for most humans to hear and see.

Other than his brother, the clearest picture is given by his long-time manager, Anthony Countey, and his later-married wife. Of course, he joins a long history of modern and innovative musicians who have suffered from mental distress, such as Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson.

Speaking of musicians, there are a lot here speaking up for him at a pedestal level, even if things didn’t go well with the band, such as (of course) the BB, Sublime, and various others such as Vernon Reid, members of the Cro-Mags, the Brothers MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi (Ian and Alec; the BB started in Washington DC), and Fishbone.

I was surprised there wasn’t more of Positive Force on there, and also missing was anyone from the Beastie Boys; HR’s band infamously toured with them, as they were signed to the Boys’ Maverick label. Someone from the label is represented here, but not the pseudo-punk rappers.  I was not, however, amazed at all (though curious to see) that no members from the Texas groups MDC (Millions of Dead Cops/Multi-Death Corporation) or the Big Boys were accounted for, all things considered:

Back in 1983, I published (but did not write) an article in FFanzeen about the people in the BB, which was less than flattering. For this, I received a lot hate mail from the hardcore scene. The core of the piece centers on that when the band found Rasta, as is described in the documentary, they also accepted its generally homophobic stance, which is not detailed in the film. There was also at least one recording studio they ripped off in New York, forcing it to close. The link to that article is HERE

One could look back and say, “Oh, well, HR was mentally sick,” but this is before any symptoms were apparent, and it was the whole band, not just HR. But, of course, this documentary is mostly focused on the person, so I’ll continue on that course.

Despite the standardized beginning of a biography documentary that more-or-less lists the facts (s/he was born there, lived here, moved there, etc.), thankfully it’s less than 10 minutes before we hear about a young HR going to New York and seeing the Dead Boys (nice clip of them from 1982 at CBGBs; yes, I was there). This changed the direction of the newly-formed BB into the hardcore mavericks and scene leaders they became; it’s arguable who were more influential in DC, the BB or Minor Threat; I’m happy to just call it a tie.

Following the progress of the BB, their dissolving due in large part to unpredictability, and the follow-through of other bands, as well as the onset of HR’s mental illness definitely makes compelling viewing. The use of a lot of historical images and videos, both off and especially on stage, keeps the story perking along quite well. Some keen animation just adds to the honeypot.

As documentaries go, this one isn’t brilliant necessarily, but then again, it has no problem keeping interest up. After all, with all his foibles and questionable choices, HR is an interesting person even beyond the BB, who has managed a career in music in extreme conditions, both on the external and internal levels.

While there may be some who boycott viewing this for reasons I’ve mentioned, I would say it’s still worth checking out, even if with a grain of salt. HR is and was a key player in the punk scene for many years, and even for that alone this is historically good viewing.

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