Published on December 8th, 2017 | by Robert Barry Francos0
Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary
Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary is a decent look at HR and mental illness, even if it’s truth selective at times.
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.
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 Human Rights Band. With the deepening of his Rasta studies, he then became Joseph I.
I was actually excited to see this documentary as, to be honest, While I never saw the BB or any of his other bands play live, I’ve seen some videos 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 that he is a, “living legend,” which is stated more than once, to how he, “sparked modern punk rock.”
Some of that is definitely 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.
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 beyond 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 also becomes ever clearer over time is that there was something seriously wrong with him, on which the documentary shines a strong light: that 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 that he has fallen into schizophrenia, including hearing and seeing what’s not necessarily there.
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 anyone from the Beastie Boys; HR’s band infamously toured with them, as they were signed to the Boys’ Maverick label. I was not, however, amazed at all that no members from the Texas punk group MDC were accounted for, all things considered:
Back in 1983, there was an article published in a ‘zine called FFanzeen about the BB, which was less than flattering. The core of the piece centers on that when the band found Rasta, as is described in the documentary, they also accepted a generally homophobic stance, which is not detailed in the film. They ripped off MDC, feeling it was justified since some members of the group are gay, but there were also clubs they took advantage over, racking up huge international phone bills, forcing at least one in New York to close. I wish this had been discussed.
Despite the standardized beginning of a biography documentary that more-or-less lists the early life facts, thankfully it’s less than 10 minutes before we hear about a young HR going to New York and seeing the Dead Boys (a great live band I saw a number of times). This changed the direction of the newly-formed BB into the hardcore mavericks and scene leaders they became.
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. I would say it’s still worth checking out; HR is and was a key player in the punk scene for many years, and even for that alone this is historically good viewing.