by Mitchell Brown, Reporter
The Bad Brains are legends. You’ve heard them even if you’ve never heard them, you’ve heard them by proxy. Their influence is present in a diverse range of aggressive guitar driven music.
Henry Rollins and Dave Grohl are fans, the influence of Bad Brains is found within the early days of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, when they were playing a frantic funk/punk hybrid, and Fishbone, Deftones, Murphy’s Law 311, No Doubt and the Cro-Mags have cited the Bad Brains as an influence.
The story of the Bad Brains is anomaly. Their essence will never be duplicated.
At the center of the band’s persona is H.R., born Paul Hudson. A few years ago a documentary on the Bad Brains was released, so some could see “Finding Joseph I” rehashing a story already told, but a single event can be viewed from multiple vantage points.
The movie starts with a backstage view shrouded in blue and purple ambient light cutting through shadows, then cuts to H.R. strutting on stage, ready to rock, decked out in a white dress suit to the roar of an adoring crowd.
For the next hour and half or so, the viewer is transported into the world of H.R. It’s a ride that has its fair share of peaks, valleys, bumps and collisions.
The view into H.R.’s world is filtered through interviews with the man himself, friends, band mates and fans.
During the opening, soundbites – many from noted musicians – are spliced together, with the reoccurring topic being the impact of the Bad Brains’ music, and as the narrative starts to move along, the refrain of that something happened to H.R. concerning his psychological stability is repeated. A question of what happened to H.R. looms over the entire film.
Like most autobiographical documentaries, it starts in the beginning, with H.R.’s life as a child. His dad was in the Air Force, H.R. was born in England, and his family moved around until eventually settling in Washington DC. From there, we are introduced to how the Bad Brains came to be. A band of brothers who were playing jazz fusion discovered the Ramones and the Deadboys, and they were so inspired they started playing the punk rock, and music has never been the same since.
The inner-workings of the band are delved into primarily through Earl Hudson, H.R.’s biological brother and the Bad Brains’ drummer and Anthony Courtney, the band’s manager. Absent from the film are Bad Brains’ bass player Darryl Jennifer and guitarist Dr. Know. I’m not surprised some members were missing. In the “A Band In DC” documentary, at certain points, a schism between H.R. and Jennifer is noticeable.
By having only two members from the band speaking tightens the focus, yet by its very nature makes the film feel lopsided.
In the film, the band becomes a cursory element with the focal point being H.R. The impact of their early albums is discussed. Of course credit is given to the self-titled album from 1982, 1983’s “Rock For Light” is lightly skimmed upon and “I Against I,” their 1986 comeback album, receives the bulk of the attention, as far as going into the intricacies of recording the album as well as its greater significance.
I’ve spent more time listening to the first two Bad Brains albums, but “I Against I” is a powerhouse. Discussed in the film is how the album was a turning point. Tempos were turned down on a few songs like “Sacred Love” and “Reignition,” and H.R.’s vocals on such tracks were less frantic. A new sonic dimension was on display.
I’m familiar with the history of the band, but via this documentary, I was able to find out things I was not aware of, namely concerning the music H.R. did outside of the Bad Brains. The band had broken up and reunited many times, first in ’83. Around ’84 he assembled a group of DC musicians to play as his backing band. The music was more reggae inspired, and H.R.’s other group Zion Train was a reggae band.
Another tidbit of information unknown to me that was featured in “Finding Joesph I” was that H.R. migrated to California in the early ’90s without a backing band, so he found new members to perform with. At one point, he had members of Sublime backing him. Seeing the footage from his West Coast musical partnerships was like seeing the personification of the “Punky Reggae Party” that Bob Marley sang of.
Half-way through the documentary, the focal point shifts from being primarily centered on music to H.R.’s mental state. Those interviewed talk of problems developing, the word delusional is used. H.R.’s eccentricity interfered with the functioning of the Bad Brains, which was exemplified when he whopped an audience member on the head with a microphone stand at a show in Lawrence, Kan. in 1995, resulting in a subsequent arrest and an aborted tour.
As the film comes to a close, we see H.R. striving to deal with his glitches of the mind, eventually seeking psychiatric help. The movie ends on an upbeat note that this highly creative individual and those close to him are able to accept that his mind functions in an abnormal way, yet he has come to be at peace with it.
If underground music legends were normal people, they wouldn’t be legendary.