Like father like sons

Anti-establishment jazz legend Phil Cohran and eight of his 23 children featured in documentary

One day some five years ago Reuben Atlas was a law school student in New York City. The next he stumbled across a street performance by Hypnotic Brass Ensemble — a fascinating horn octet made up entirely of sons of Phil Cohran an acclaimed jazz trumpet player and black rights activist — and became a filmmaker.

“A friend of mine who worked at Major League Baseball stole a camera out of their closet for me that wasn’t being used” Atlas explains laughing. “I started shooting on that.”

Of course the transition wasn’t that precise: Atlas ended up graduating working at the legal aid organization his father started and eventually taking a job at an entertainment law firm all while chipping away at Brothers Hypnotic . He estimates half of the time was dedicated to grant writing. But a day after he hit gold — that is sizable funding from PBS — he quit his gig and became a full-time filmmaker.

Atlas had never made a feature-length film before Hypnotic although you wouldn’t be able to tell that given the quality of the work. The process wasn’t entirely foreign however — his mother made documentaries editing them in a studio in his childhood home. Her style was just “show up with a camera.” That ethos was carried out in his initial approach following the Ensemble to shows rehearsals and family hangouts.

“I initially wanted to make a vérité film and not have any talking head stuff” he says. “In the beginning it was just me chasing them. I have lots of crappy crappy stuff. I wasn’t getting the big emotional moments that I had wanted and I wasn’t getting great music scenes. Those were two goals I had for the vérité. When I honed the story down I knew what parts we were going to tell.”

As the film proceeds the potential for divergence in focus becomes clear. On one hand there are hints of the original plan with an assortment of show footage ranging from performances on downtown corners to backing up Prince in Ireland and Mos Def in New York. But Hypnotic differentiates from a standard music doc with the underlying tension between father and sons.

“The first time I saw them interact with him the film took on a different dimension” Atlas says. “I just saw how much gravitas was in that interaction.”

Cohran the father is an extraordinary character. He mentored Earth Wind and Fire played extensively with Sun Ra and helped found the Afro-Arts Theater in Chicago in the late ’60s. He also fathered 23 children. Morning prayers and band rehearsal started at young ages for the kids; Cohran viewed the music as a means of empowerment and spiritual growth. Music was for the community.

Hence the friction. A significant moment in Hypnotic — one that Atlas wasn’t allowed to film — was a signing offer from the CEO of Atlantic Records. Cohran the father despised such profit-obsessed companies for the classic reasons. Eventually partially due to the influence of their father the brothers rejected the offer from Atlantic. Conflicts about the matter continued to occur though.

“I didn’t want to put the fighting before the music where it’s like ‘this band member’s fighting with this band member all because this one wants to sell their music and soul and this one wants to keep the music to the family’” Atlas explains. “I didn’t want to pigeonhole one brother against the next because they didn’t exist like that. It wouldn’t have been genuine to who they were.”

Much has occurred since Atlas first picked up the camera a half-decade ago. The Ensemble has released many albums including two on the London-based Damon Albarn-affiliated record company Honest Jon’s. They’ve opened for or played with the Wu-Tang Clan Gorrilaz and Blur. Their track “War” was used as the theme song for Caesar Flickerman in The Hunger Games .

And there’s been plenty on the go for Atlas too. Hypnotic premièred at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival and was later shown at Hot Docs (a festival he specifically shouts out for having the best audiences). He’s currently working on two documentaries: one on extremely rare wines one on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). That one day five years ago really did change everything.

Brothers Hypnotic screens for free on Thursday April 10 at the Arts Learning Centre (Epcor Centre).