Lively, funny and at times philosophical, Reuben Atlas' debut docu chronicles the rise of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble with great sensitivity.
After spending several years chronicling the rise of fiery eight-member brother band the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, first-time filmmaker Reuben Atlas manages to capture most of the elements that make the group such a sui generis force. Lively, funny and at times philosophical, “Brothers Hypnotic” tackles the challenges of maintaining an independent music career, as well as some knotted generational conflicts, and handles it all with great sensitivity. Docu premiered at SXSW earlier this spring, and ought to have continuing life at fests and on VOD.
Above all else, the film does an excellent job of capturing and contextualizing the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s brand of sinewy musical magic. An idiosyncratic fusion of jazz, funk, Afrobeat and more than a smidge of hip-hop, the group’s horn-dominated arrangements rely on an uncommonly intense interpersonal chemistry, and it’s no secret where that chemistry comes from. Sons of Chicago jazz polymath and Black Consciousness figure Phil Cohran, the brothers all grew up in a huge, unconventional family (though they share the same father, the group’s eight players count three different mothers, two of whom helped raise the communal brood side-by-side), practicing music for hours every day and performing in the Phil Cohran Youth Ensemble.
In forming Hypnotic, the group made a partial break from their father, and the struggle to re-evaluate and reinterpret his uncompromising musical and political ideals for a modern era, while retaining his anti-establishment spirit, becomes ever more acute as the group’s profile rises. In a sense, the band members’ complicated relationships with their imposing paterfamilias form an intriguing microcosm of the tensions between the hip-hop generation and its civil-rights-era forebears, which gives the film a much more potent throughline than the simple “perils of success” tropes in which so many music docs traffic.
First seen playing on the streets of Manhattan (where they reason they can make just as much money as playing in clubs), the group eventually graduates to venues like Lincoln Center and major European festivals. Whereas artistic integrity is something so many contempo artists grouse about before signing on to do a Pepsi commercial, Hypnotic clearly take the concept seriously. They turn down an early contract offer from Atlantic Records, and when they’re given opportunities to play with the likes of Mos Def, Damon Albarn and Prince, they first thoughtfully debate whether the gigs are worth the tradeoff of being seen as someone else’s backing band. Yet this is hardly a dour, Fugazi-like indie operation: After jamming with Prince at an Irish concert, the brothers walk offstage and can do nothing but scream with joy and disbelief.
Perhaps inevitably, given the sheer number of characters involved, the film has occasional difficulty differentiating the various musicians’ personalities — referring to them by order of birth doesn’t help — but nearly all of them exhibit the laid-back, improvisational comedic instincts of veteran street showmen. Even a near-meltdown in a recording studio is softened by the brotherly banter that continues throughout the crisis, and a scene in which two of them endlessly dissect a paragraph-long album review recalls “This Is Spinal Tap” in the best possible way.
In addition to his own footage, Atlas draws from a wealth of archival tapes and homevideo, with understandably variable quality. Yet the sound fidelity is consistently fantastic, befitting a band that sounds more or less the same whether it’s playing on street corners, ritzy concert hall stages or cramped New York City apartments.