One of punk rock’s most mercurial frontmen, Bad Brains’ HR has built a reputation on his seemingly limitless energy—-and erratic behavior. Now in progress, the locally produced documentary Finding Joseph I—-which exceeded its $38,000 Kickstarter goal this week—-is one of two new films that explores the complicated relationship between HR and his bandmates. Washington City Paper spoke over email with Dawne Langford, the producer/editor of Finding Joseph I, about HR, Bad Brains, and what drew her to the project.
Washington City Paper: What led you to make a documentary about HR?
Dawne Langford: This documentary was started when James Lathos met with HR to interview him for a skate magazine in a Baltimore warehouse he was living in, and the idea came about between the two of them because HR found his questions to be thoughtful and interesting. James has a genuine friendship with him, which I find important. I joined about a year later. Not only was the music that HR created pivotal in my life when I was younger, but I always sensed he was misunderstood and subject to judgment for his impulsive behavior in the past. There are many stories of him out there but rarely do we hear his account.
WCP: Are you familiar with the forthcoming documentary Bad Brains: A Band in DC? I attended a screening at AFI Silver last year. How does your film take a similar or different approach to discussing HR’s legacy?
DL: I personally have only seen excerpts from A Band in DC. The documentary we are working on focuses primarily on HR. This is a living document about his life and music today. The issues we explore have more to do with isolation, renewal, and love, with the understanding that sometimes he did not have full agency in his situation. The focus of this documentary is to share his personal story with the hope it will touch others.
WCP: What is your sense about HR’s commitment to Bad Brains? His behavior at recent shows has been erratic, often seeming disengaged or uninterested. A Band in DC portrays his commitment to performing as something of a liability.
DL: What I can speak to in regards to HR’s commitment to Bad Brains is that he is committed enough to still play with them even though he isn’t always feeling well or even [has] full agency. He doesn’t have any ownership and lives a very humble life (to put it mildly). This music is from 30 years ago. HR has for a very long time been more interested in spirituality through Rastafarianism and focusing on reggae.
For clarification, I am saying HR doesn’t always have full agency over his own moods or behavior in general. Some issues we explore in the documentary are his quest for spiritual peace, the speculation about his mental health, the blurring of lines between performance and everyday life, and all of the expectations he has to live up to. Due to the fact that events are still unfolding, there are some issues I am not able to elaborate on at this time.
WCP: Your Kickstarter campaign description states the following: “HR’s increasingly strange and abnormal behavior has left many convinced that he his suffering from psychological troubles while others believe he is still living out his journey as one of the greatest frontmen in rock and roll history.” You likely spent a great deal of time with HR throughout this process. Do you believe his behavior indicates the presence of a serious mental illness?
DL: Well… I don’t think it is my place to diagnose anyone. What I can say is that sometimes what HR is doing is because he is a creative person, and other times there is a disconnect.
WCP: If the impetus of the film is to tell HR’s story from his perspective, what will the audience will be most surprised by?
DL: There is no intention with this movie to be a counterpoint to A Band in DC or to shock. This is about showing HR as a human being.