Too shallow for experts and too unexplained for initiates, it’s hard to know who the hagiographic Time is Illmatic is aimed at. Shot as a Ken Burns-style documentary that explores the early life of rapper Nas and the events leading up to the creation of his debut album Illmatic, this unfortunately slight film simultaneously bites off too much, and yet leaves fascinating avenues completely unexplored.
Screenplay: Erik Parker. (Documentary)
Runtime: 74 minutes.
Cast: Nas, Fab 5 Freddy, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Viewed as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
Plot: A brief account of the childhood and career of the hip-hop artist Nas, the film focuses on the events leading up to his 1994 debut album Illmatic and its influence on the broader Hip-Hop scene in Brooklyn and across America. Told from a vantage point of success, it also recounts the tragic deaths and incarceration of Nas’ core group of friends from the period, as well as his abandonment by a neglectful father.
Festival Goers? Miss it.
Review: It’s hard to know who the hagiographic Time is Illmatic is aimed at; a Ken Burns-style documentary that explores the early life of rapper Nas and the events leading up to the creation of his debut album Illmatic. Clocking in at a short 74 minutes, the film simultaneously bites off more than it can chew but at the same time doesn’t seem interested in the fundamental creative processes that moved underneath the creation of that groundbreaking release. There’s a short attempt to describe the context in which this rich vein of music developed, as well as life in South Brooklyn and in particular Nas’ early family situation; but the exploration is too shallow to satisfy most. Those well versed in the history of Hip-Hop and looking for a deeper insight into Nas’ process or development will only find material they are already familiar with here; while newcomers are unlikely to be captured by the manner in which his dramatic story is presented. The result is a fairly uncreative music documentary that doesn’t rise above a Behind the Music standard; a real shame, because there’s a wealth of material to be explored here, just hidden under the surface.
And the mythologising is laid on thickly from the outset, with interviews from Alicia Keys, Fab 5 Freddy, Busta Rhymes, and others – all successful figures in their own right, who feel the need to kiss the ring here. ‘It was like living a hustler's life through poetry’ Fab 5 Freddy remarks at one point, one of the key figures present for the creation of a new form of music, and he gets to the heart of Hip-Hop’s appeal when he observes that it is ‘telling the dark side and black systems in America.’ There’s a fascinating dialogue to be had here with figures, like Bill Cosby and other cranky old men, who object that the music glorifies gangster lifestyles and bad role models, almost as if they yearn for the days of Peter, Paul, and Mary. And certainly, the more Hip-Hop is commercialised (in a disturbingly entrenched way, now), the more that may be true as part of the complicit powers of capitalism. But anyone who has listened for more than a few minutes to seminal albums like Illmatic (and I am absolutely not an expert) will realise, the music is a raw scream against the injustice of a system that perpetuates a virtual, economic segregation. The film is at its best when it is linking this back to the music, documenting the history of the Brooklyn projects and the aspirations of black families. Cornel West is on hand to explain the ‘white flight’ associated with such projects, and the inevitable ghettoisation that it causes. Cosby-ites seem to want this forgotten as soon as possible, now that some members of the black community have experienced success; at its heart, Hip-Hop is a powerful critique of this new American myth, and that is perhaps why it is perceived so threateningly.
There’s also a potted history of crack, drugs, and the associated gang violence – but anyone who has a passing acquaintance with David Simon’s work, among many others, is going to find this woefully inadequate. Most of the film is focused on testimonies from Nas’ colleagues, and the story of his family. His mother is justifiably lionised as a woman of strength and purpose; his father, Olu Dara and himself a successful musician, is given equal place alongside her quite undeservedly. Throughout the film, Dara seems as if he is auditioning to be crowned the world's worst father of the past few decades; running out on the family to work in Europe, largely absent from his children’s lives, advising them to leave school as soon as possible (a fact that he’s now proud of, in an amazing display of the post hoc fallacy), and remarking that in his family everyone succeeds at their profession because ‘if they a ho, they the top of ho-dom.’ Delightful. 'It was shocking to me, I felt very bad' he remarked on the violent spot in which his children landed; feeling bad from the other side of the planet, in one of the most breathtakingly insincere remarks I’ve ever seen in a documentary.
There’s a lot missing from the narrative too – like the missing middle part of an entrepreneur’s success story. The film is brilliant at conveying a sense of the days of wildstyle and the breakout 90’s, where a place like Queensborough could be put on the Hip-Hop map (‘Manhattan keeps on making it, Brooklyn keeps on taking it. / Bronx keeps creating it, and Queens keeps on faking it’ to quote Criminal Minded); as well as a sense of what that meant to the Hip-Hop community there. Rap battles may now be an ironic white man’s pursuit on youtube, but the film conveys the fundamental cultural conflict that went on and a sense of those that were killed or threatened in a conflict that was as much about drugs and territory as it was about music. 'Life itself didn’t seem too valuable' Nas remarks, in a reflection of the institutionalised neglect and abuse black communities experience and a whole strata of the American political sphere seeks to blindly deny. Translate the same lesson to a Country and Western context, and perhaps Bill O’Reilly might change his mind over white privilege.
There’s an abundance of material to deal with here, making director One9’s choices seem a little thin and misdirected. There’s a lot of focus of the sensational nature of Illmatic’s content (and other performances) – with lines like ‘when I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus’ from Live at the Barbecue (1991) and the poignant ‘why don’t your lady write ya’ in ‘One Love’ of Illmatic itself. Beyond brief explanations of the origins of these powerful sentiments, there’s little exploration or dialogue with the broader political resonance of these lines. The film focuses on being a pure celebration of Nas’ celebrity, and is resultingly short on interrogation. Even the craft of the film is a bit shaky, with focus issues in static interviews and the like.
Ultimately, Hip-Hop completists are the only viewers who will want to catch this biopic. Too shallow for experts and too unexplained for initiates, the film occupies an awkward middle ground that is becoming all too common within Hip-Hop hagiographies.
Rating: Two and a half stars.