A few weeks ago a series of serendipitous events happened. Cheryl and I fell into the deep crevasses of the internet and spent hours watching old Bad Brains performances, HR interviews and documentaries. A week later through a series of random occurrences we ended up at Nitehawk for a screening and Q&A (watch here) of Finding Joseph I, a 2016 documentary about HR. A week after the screening we were at the Bowery Electric for an HR performance.
Finding Joseph I has been a long time coming, the result of a ten year passion project (evidence of the Kickstarter campaign can still be found in the recesses of the internet). The documentary sets out to sift through all of the muck, fog, and confusion to answer “what happened to HR?” The documentary tracks HR through his childhood spent with his brother (and Bad Brains bandmate) Earl Hudson zigzagging through America and Jamaica until they reach Washington, D.C. where Bad Brains eventually formed. The film then follows HR through the peak of Bad Brains to his move into Rastafarianism and reggae as questions of his mental health and stability cement themselves at the forefront of his musical persona.
The movie settles into its comfort zone, HR’s Baltimore warehouse home. It feels cold and bleak, it’s sad and not somewhere you want to see one of your heroes spending years of his life. It’s an aggressive physical metaphor for the state of things, the depth of his discomfort and illness. Unlike most movies, biopics and stories about the people who survive punk, Finding Joseph I ends on a high note. HR finally comes to recognize, diagnose and treat his schizophrenia. After decades after suffering a quiet internal battle HR finally finds peace.
Finding Joseph I’s success comes from it’s staunch and straight march into the difficult and deep depths of handling the intimate portrayal of an iconic musician and cultural figure, a task made increasingly more difficult with the undertones and eventual mental illness diagnosis.
At his Bowery Electric performance a week later the mood is hopeful and apprehensive, by his own admission HR would sometimes show up to performances without ever uttering a word, let alone sing a note. But HR does perform, he performs a two hour long set. The whole experience was stunning and ethereal, only enhanced by my subsequent conversations with HR and Finding Joseph I director, James Lathos.
When did you first meet HR? What made you want to do a documentary on him?
James: I first met HR at a show when I was 15 and then years later I had set up to interview him when I was writing for this skateboard magazine. I went to go meet him and we talked for like an hour and I went back two days later and we talked about music and about spirituality then he out of the blue was like “oh you should do a documentary” [laughs]. I was like yeah lets do it!
What made you want to approach James about making a documentary?
HR: Well the reason why was because I wanted the audience, they were asking me how I’m doing, I wanted to let them know how I feel and how important they are to me. Yes ma’am.
Is watching the people in your life reflect on the difficult parts of your life difficult to watch?
HR: No ma’am it was not invisible to me or negative. I know most of the people around me anyway and they made interviews with each of them presenting how they feel about things about me in every way and I thank them for their wonderful support.
There’s no questions I had to ask he was very thorough in his approach to me, James he checked out all aspects of people and their perception and how people felt about me and showed it thoroughly. It’s very close to my heart so I’m glad they let me know but I was still joking around with the different personalities. I didn’t really mean what I was saying I just wanted to make them laugh and put a little bit of humor to my feelings with them. I basically wanted to just take all of those different personalities as a joke and a lie to keep them aware of my intentions and to keep them on my side.
You guys became close friends through the process, did you ever struggle with the line between observer and friend?
James: A lot of people had told me, you can’t get close to the subject, you have to be on the outside looking in. I looked at it the other way for this project you have to be on the inside to understand. There’s plenty of times where I had to turn the camera off and times when I didn’t even have a camera, just to be a real friend. I think Joe would honor that and respect that if it were the other way around. There was a time when we sat down and talked more of a friendship kind of thing, persuading him to seek what he needs to make his life better.
Were you surprised by all of the love and support conveyed in the movie?
HR: It was amazing and it caught me by surprise. I mostly never knew how people felt about me and when I found out I wanted to do all the shows over again but sing this time instead of just standing on the stage and not saying nothing.
So is Bad Brains returning?
HR: Yes ma’am I got a call from Gary and Daryl and they said they want to hook up with me on a new level playing international progressive jazz songs. I was very surprised, I liked it very much and I’m glad they wanted to get together and I’m still waiting for them to call again because they needed a place to work at and to do their shows and they wanted to work out with me. I finally found a place where they can do those studio tracks and that made a difference, I found a place where they could jam out and get together for their work.
During the time you’ve been working on this documentary, the conversation on mental health has changed so much, it used to be really severe and less forgiving or understanding than it is today—
James: I think one percent of people have schizophrenia so it’s on every block, it’s here and I just don’t think people really understand it. It’s different with different people but I think he was kind of like a conduit, with the music and everything it was pretty intense. Its not a bad thing per say and a lot of the greatest artists ever had something bigger that we can’t really explain like Edgar Allen Poe, Basquiat all these other artists and musicians. I think he’s in that category as far as what he did on stage physically and just the different sounds he could make with his voice he could have sang anything.
Finding Joseph I is screening on January 24th at St. Vitus followed by a Q&A with HR. There’s an accompanying book with longer and more in depth interviews which you can buy here. Keep up with Finding Joseph I on their Facebook or website.