With the Melbourne International Film Festival just around the corner, it’s nice to see so many of last year’s titles still making their way to audiences. One of my favourite films of last year’s 60th anniversary celebration was Michael Rapaport’s Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. Anybody who has listened to music of the iconic hip-hop outfit A Tribe Called Quest from Queens, New York, will surely already be well aware of the power they hold, but newcomers to the band may just be surprised at the level of artistry and social awareness that they bring to their groundbreaking work.
Nothing will quite beat the rather humourous experience of sitting in a late night darkened cinema watching this engaging documentary and spotting a sea of white bread audience members bopping their head in tune to the catchy (er) beats and rhymes that Quest throw out and exclaiming “that was dope!” during the end credits. Alas, this film’s DVD release at least allows viewers to sit there with their Shazam app open just waiting to tag the latest addictive tune to blast out of the speakers. You’ll be rushing to iTunes, Spotify, or even the record store as soon as the movie’s over.
Rapaport is best known as an actor of TV (Friends) and film (Deep Blue Sea), but his first foray into feature film directing (he once directed an episode of Boston Public, a TV series I was a big fan of during its run) is a rather univigorating effort from a technical standpoint. More or less letting the band’s energy dictate the flow of the film rather than using his own filmmaking initiative and drive. It’s hardly enough to send the film off the tracks into an unfocused mess, but it might have been nice if the documentary had worked a bit harder to find a real internal narrative. Still, that feels like a minor quibble when the film is so robust and fun. Thankfully A Tribe Called Quest are actually a group that deserves the film treatment; their music was inspiring and full of messages that spoke to audiences then and still do today. It’s hard to picture many hip-hop artists of today inciting such devotion and respect when all they sing about are superfluous things.
Probably buoyed by the crowd numbers and reception of Beats Rhymes & Life, MIFF has again programmed a hip-hop documentary for this year’s festival. Co-directed by Ice-T, I am very much excited for Something for Nothing: The Art of Rap – and here’s hoping for more hilarious head-bopping hipsters in attendance! “That was dope”, indeed.
An even better recently released documentary is Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer, which received the barest of releases last year in Melbourne. This fabulous skating documentary has echoes of Gus Van Sant with its hazy, daydreamy look at the lives of skateboarding youths. Focusing on Josh Sandoval as he travels across America finding any space possible to skate. The empty swimming pools of inland California spawn a nomadic existence, but one that makes for a satisfying life for Josh and therein lies the charm of Dragonslayer. While it works as a fascinating look at a subculture, it is also a wonderful profile of a man who has endured so much and found one element of life that he enjoys and turned it into a reason to live. It’s a wonderful piece of cinema that I listed on my top ten of 2011 so I can’t recommend it enough.
Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest and Dragonslayer are out now through Madman Entertainment