'Brothers Hypnotic' Is the Tale of a Brass Band in Thrilling Motion

As much as this celebrates the music of the Hypnotic Brass Band, with long sequences devoted to their energetic performances, it also makes clear the hard work that goes into it.

Brothers Hypnotic

Director: Reuben Atlas
Cast: Gabriel “Hudah” Hubert, Saiph “Cid” Graves, Tycho “LT” Cohran, Amal Baji Hubert, Jafar Baji “Yosh” Graves, Seba “Clef” Graves, Tarik “Smoove” Graves, Uttama “Rocco” Hubert, Phil Cohran, Maia, Aquilla Sadalla Graves, Mos Def, Damon Albarn, Prince, Tony Allen
Rated: NR
Studio: Pandora Film Center
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-03-24 (Maysles Documentary Center)
Editor's note: Brothers Hypnotic is screening this week at Maysles Documentary Center. Screenings on Friday, 28 March and Saturday, 29 March will be followed by Q&As with director Reuben Atlas and Hypnotic Brass members. The film premieres on 7 April on PBS' Independent Lens.

"It's about y'all. Y'all are gonna run the world someday." Tarik Graves squats on the sidewalk, signing CDs and music sheets for a crowd of little kids. The camera is level with those children and Tarik, who goes by the name of Smoove, which is to say, it's low and close, intimate and mobile. Cut to a next moment, when Smoove is standing alongside a yellow school bus. He looks back over his shoulder to the camera, asserting, again, "That's what it's all about, yo." He runs alongside the bus, touching hands extended from inside, then trots across the street to find another bus, where he touches more hands, reaches out to more kids, as he spins and laughs, delighted.

This brief sequence in Brothers Hypnotic, vivid and exhilarating, is both anomalous and typical, focused on the youngest member of the Chicago-based Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, as well as the youngest son of trumpeter Phil Cohran. Smoove's enthusiasm is infectious and informative too: this is what it's "all about," what the band does, what the family believes, in the energy and future of children, the legacy they might pass on, the culture they embody and share. For Smoove and his seven brothers, born to two mothers who raised them together on Chicago's South side. Inspired and instructed by their father, the boys grew up playing together.

As much as the film celebrates their music, with long sequences devoted to their energetic performances, it also makes clear the hard work that goes into it. Their training, you see, was rigorous and technical, in the sense that they mastered the art of playing horns -- trumpets, French horns, trombones, tubas -- but it was also emotional and spiritual, an education in how to live, how to commit, how to survive. "Long tones were the first thing we ever learned," says trumpeter Cid at the start of the film. "So every time we start out with that because it's the principle of simplicity. The most basic thing is one note."

As he speaks, the camera is close on a set of instruments, one at a time, each playing a long tone, prolonged, as each horn fills the screen. This comes after the camera has followed the brothers walking along Chicago train tracks, watching them from overhead and from low to the ground, through fencing or train car doors. Such precise framing underlines the case about the long tones, each shot reinforcing the visual referent of the tracks and the train, historic, rhythmic, long. As they talk, they play, the soundtrack layering voices and long notes, another gesture toward the theme, the survival of sound and players too.

Brothers Hypnotic introduces the band as a function of their dad, his progeny, his project even as they have also become devoted artists in their own right. For years, throughout their childhood, the brothers revered their father, as well as his decision to leave behind commercial music, to play with Sun Ra and raise his family according to an Afrocentric philosophy. "Our father explained to us that the neighborhood was so impoverished and full of crime," says Cid, "Because we were living in a neighborhood that was full of people that didn't have any self-love. They taught everybody that young black men were stupid and [you] can't teach them." He and his brothers, Cid concludes, are "the opposite of that," educated and respectful of themselves, each other, and the culture that made them.

This much seems clear in photos and home movies of the young boys playing music, their eyes on their dad, sometimes glancing toward the camera and whomever might have been recording them. Some photos suggest the boys' relationships with their mothers, Maia and Aquilla, who plays the harp. "Aqulilla and I were good friends," says Maia now. "We were raising our children to be respectable assets to the world, that was our intention." As Brothers Hypnotic reveals that the mothers achieved their intention, it doesn't spend much time working out the details of their own complicated experiences; rather, true to its title, the documentary remains focused on the brothers, in particular as they rethink how to sustain their legacy and how to forge their own paths, how to play one note and also many.

This rethinking takes the brothers from the streets or small venues in Chicago and other cities, to something like a relationship with the commercial industry, the one their father rejected so many years ago. In part, they reason, this shift is a means to sustain the very legacy they so value, to make their music available to increasing numbers of people; to this end, they hire an agent (actually, a couple of agents, as they replace the first a few months into their new adventure). In part, the shift is inspired by attention the band gets from artists who have found ways to negotiate with the industry, including Mos Def, Prince, and Damon Albarn, and in part it's a result of their own maturing, as they negotiate their own complicated and very different relationships with Cohran.

While the "brothers" do tend to be grouped and perceived as such, as a remarkable blood-related cohort, Brothers Hypnotic shows as well their experiences as individuals. And as individuals, they choose to reform as a band and recommit to their art as a unit. The family is both a start and eternal, much like their music.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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