Charles Bradley / Photos by Issac Sterling, courtesy of Daptone
Daptone Records has been bucking music industry norms for 15 years, grinding out hard-hitting soul and funk on vintage machinery. The musician-owned independent label might not make Top 40 hits, but the music it puts out—the roster includes the incomparable Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, The Budos Band, and Antibalas, among others—drips with passion and aural integrity.
Based out of a two-story building nicknamed the House of Soul in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Daptone has a familial feel, with many musicians playing in multiple bands. Performances by headlining acts Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley (who are in their sixties and have survived cancer and homelessness, respectively, to achieve musical success in their later years) are exciting, gut-punching, and often time-traveling events, too timeless to be labeled as revivalist.
In December 2014, the entire Daptone Family headlined Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater for one such run of shows, a three-night, sold-out musical revue that was so heavy and heartfelt, it hearkened back to James Brown’s historic stands at the same venue. The performances were captured for a concert film and documentary called Living On Soul: The Family Daptone. Directed by Jeff Broadway, whose credits include the Stones Throw Records doc Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton, the film is set to be released late this year, but there is still work to be done. The filmmakers launched a Kickstarter campaign, which ends June 17, to raise funds for the final portion of post-production. To find out more about the film, I called up Broadway and Daptone co-founder Gabe Roth, a.k.a Bosco Mann.
Noisey: Jeff, how does this group of artists compare to other groups you’ve met or filmed?
Jeff Broadway: They kind of exist on their own frequency outside of the bubble of the music industry, seemingly. They’re totally unconcerned with trends; by and large they’re a bit older. They’re people who were corrections officers and professors and travelers and wanderers and people who have always been musicians but not necessarily career ones. That really shines through. There’s a certain pretension that’s totally absent.
Gabe, how does this film compare with others that you’ve featured in?
Gabe Roth: All the other live recordings have always been just kind of whoever might happen to have a camera or something. This one, though, is just a very beautifully, beautifully filmed show. We’ve done a lot of other documentaries and video pieces, so that’s not really exciting for me personally, but the live show is something incredible that we haven’t done before. The show itself was something we dreamed about for a long time.
Why do you think the Apollo show was so exceptional?
Broadway: That whole stretch of four or five days in those shows just felt so unique and magical. People who I knew who were at those shows, the resounding feedback was “I’ve never seen a show like that,” or “It was the best show I’ve ever seen.” “I cried.” They are, especially together, such a powerhouse of emotion. Especially night two when Sharon had just been nominated for her first Grammy. That was a really special moment, such a chill-inducing thing to be shooting.
What was it like backstage at the Apollo?
Roth: There’s a lot of crossover where people are playing in two or three different bands. It’s all old friends and people who have been playing music together for 15 to 20 years. The vibe backstage is amazing—it’s almost like a wedding or something were everybody’s just smiling, everyone’s just happy and enjoying it.
Every one of these bands can go to a club and play for two hours and tear it down. When you’re doing a revue you’re only playing for like 40-45 minutes; you kind of trim the fat and everybody puts a fire under each other’s asses. It made the whole thing fun. The wings of the show were packed, everyone was watching each other’s set and if they weren’t, they were downstairs laughing and jamming. It was a lot of beautiful connections between people.
Whose performance hit you the hardest? Whose were you most surprised by?
Broadway: Definitely that second night when Sharon had been nominated; I don’t really feel like I’ve seen a performance quite like that from anyone, and it will definitely come through in the film. I think it just felt like she was kind of on a whole different plane. I think she had been really tired going into those shows. On that second night she was just radiating, it felt like she had been almost overcome by this spirit. I know she’s a lady of faith and it felt like there was something that was flowing through her bones.
Roth: I think that it’s gonna be different for each person. Any one of these bands could have made their own movie or own live record. The Antibalas sets to me are unbelievable—just the energy and musicianship. The Surgarman 3 was one of the highlights of it. I think musically it was one of the peaks.
There haven’t been many concert films released in recent years. Why will people want to watch this? Do you distinguish between a concert film and documentary?
Broadway: Not really. It’s very much a back and forth and ebb and flow of just being thrown in the room of the Apollo in a very intimate and specific way, then coming out of it into a scene that helps contextualize who these artists are as people. It’s picking up in the room at the Apollo and watching Charles Bradley melt you for four minutes and then coming up into a scene with producer Tom Brenneck and Charles very quietly sort of preparing for a recording session. We hope you get equal parts intimate, behind-the-scenes type of access that is hopefully sort of unprecedented.
Roth: I have two takes: One, people don’t watch concert movies because there aren’t good concert movies. Of course people see a lot more documentaries because that’s what’s there. We built this label for 15, 20 years from the beginning based not on what’s gonna sell, but if we puts our hearts into something, someone else out there will probably dig it. So I don’t feel like there’s any reason to do anything different by making the greatest concert movie ever made from this.
Did Daptone bring its signature sound recording to the mix?
All sound recording for the show was done by me and my engineers Wayne and Simon, who did all the Daptone records. It was definitely a challenge because it’s very different from what we do in the studio. In the studio we have all the time in the world. We ended up doing this recording digitally with a lot of tracks, even though we might not use them. There was no time to adjust microphones or tracks in between bands.
Why did you decide to shoot in 4K with vintage lenses?
Broadway: We wanted to approach shooting with obviously the best cameras we could shoot on, but we didn’t want the material to have that new age-y sort of gloss that sort of feels like Palladium live stream. The film is more portrait-faced, more intimate than that, and we wanted it to have a certain texture. It’s kind of dripping with a different type of feel and almost tension. Cory scoured New York for the best old Cooke zoom lenses, and we had a lot of the cameras they shot American Hustle on.
How does this differ from the documentaries Miss Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley: Soul of America?
As far as Soul of America goes, that was a film that was a very caring portrait. That film ends on the brink of everything kind of happening for Charles; this film finds him some years later. He’s at a much different place in his life when Soul of America was filming than when we picked up with him. I also think that our cinematic approach with Charles is quite different.
Do you feel, to some extent, that the Daptone story has already been told enough?
Roth: There’s a great feature doc about Sharon and everything she’s going through. People are going to hear and know that story. I think the other thing is with the Internet being what it is, I don’t feel responsibility to explain everything to everybody. I also think it’s not as interesting. Let’s save that for when we’re all gone, otherwise it feels indulgent and weird. I always feel like as long as we focus on the music that’s always the right answer, man. Same thing with the film. This isn’t us telling our story; it is part of the story that’s going to be told.
Jessica Lipsky is living on soul in Oakland. Follow her on Twitter.