The theme of fathers and sons clashing over life’s precepts is deeply woven into cinema’s fabric, and it’s the tack that director Reuben Atlas takes in telling his story of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a jazz group of eight literal brothers born to three supportive mothers and the same father, Chicago music legend Phil Cohran. He hands his sons “a set of values,” as the band’s agent notes, but not necessarily “a road map for how to make sense of those things.” Atlas’s film documents the struggle to make sense of and ultimately recontextualize those values.
Admittedly, eight protagonists makes it difficult to know each one in depth, and so Atlas portrays them as an octadic unit rather than individuals, a band fusing jazz, funk, and hip-hop. An early sequence cuts from the group performing on a club stage to a crowded sidewalk, and this is key because the brothers delineate themselves as street performers. This isn’t by circumstance, as a discouraging New York Times article alludes, but by choice. Identity and communion, not money, is the aim.
Which is precisely what makes it frustrating when later they forgo the streets solely for the stage and the film fails to address the reason behind this philosophical about-face. It’s one of several times the film jettisons crucial texture, instead choosing to summarize it via single screen titles, such as leaving one agent for another, ignoring necessary insight into what creates the band’s growth. Thus, Brothers Hypnotic isn’t so much challenging as it is a celebration of overall ideals.
Still, the film isn’t saccharine. Mos Def and Prince make cameos, but their appearances aren’t exploited, both men featured in the role of supporters as opposed to mentors pointing the way toward a glittering future. Nor is it a triumphant summiting of the record-deal mountaintop as the band pointedly refuses a deal with Atlantic Records on the principal that Atlantic was the same label guilty of turning its back on their father due to his anti-establishment leanings. There are grudges held amid all the good will, an intention of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble to do things on their terms, and those terms stem directly from their upbringing.
Phil Cohran is only a supporting player, yet his presence looms large over every event. After all, it’s a music-centric documentary, and the self-reliant convictions of the father and his sons can be traced to the music they play. A particular passage finds the brothers arguing about whether or not to incorporate their father’s songs into a show. The combative consensus is that they will not because those songs don’t belong in spirit to the Hypnotic Jazz Ensemble. Their father’s values inform their own, but their values are not their father’s.