It’s tough to recall when or where I first learned about the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, the Chicago-based band of eight brothers known for their signature blend of jazz, funk and hip hop. They’ve been in the public consciousness for some time, releasing 12 albums over the past 10 years and performing with everyone from De La Soul to Gorillaz to Prince. But it was interesting to learn that the group has been without a major record deal throughout their career and made their name mostly through street performing, self-releasing albums, and booking their own world tours.
To be sure, the ensemble has had plenty of interest from record labels in the past but chose to stay independent in order to keep control of their music and image, a decision largely influenced by the anti-establishment views of their father, legendary jazz trumpeter Phil Cohran. This conflict between independent ideals and mainstream success is the basis for Brothers Hypnotic, the feature documentary from first-time filmmaker Reuben Atlas. The film, which premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and recently screened at Urbanworld Film Festival, gives a funny and candid look at the brothers’ unconventional upbringing and how it shaped their approach to music.
Through verite footage and interviews, Atlas contrasts stories of the brothers’ childhood with their inspiring climb from street corner performances to an eventual overseas tour. Growing up with their father, their three different mothers and approximately 23 siblings under the same roof, they’re raised with a sense of discipline and black consciousness that eventually makes them view the system – in this case, the record industry – with suspicion. Ultimately they must decide how to define themselves in the shadow of who their father raised them to be.
With mostly low-budget visuals, the film depends on the electricity of the band’s performances to keep us interested. With their eight horns raised, rocking back and forth and occasionally adding rap to the mix, their energy is palpable. The other big draw is their charisma off stage – whether comically analyzing a review of their album or squabbling over which songs to perform on tour, the brothers provide more than enough laughs and drama to fill out the loose narrative.
At 84 minutes, the doc feels a bit long, and it’s easy to envision a one-hour version working well for public broadcast. Still, Atlas does a fine job painting a complete picture of his subjects, and giving us a few musical treats along the way.
Brothers Hypnotic is currently screening at Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.