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Take it personally 

Music at Full Frame

It's not a revelation, just a reminder: Sometimes the best documentaries work because they are personal. The best documentaries have the unique power to be educational and inspiring.

click to enlarge Boys on film: Dexter Romweber in two headed cow - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME

This year, the music documentaries that will work best at Full Frame--Beyond Beats and Rhymes, two headed cow and To Be Continued--are successful because they do just that, honing in close on their subjects and not letting go until some real nugget rattles loose. Of those, To Be Continued is the only film that is part of this year's Hurricane Katrina programming. Of the other two Katrina films about New Orleans music, the Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint portrait Putting the River in Reverse falls far short, while the NOLA bands-on-the run decoupage New Orleans Music in Exile only misses by half.

Consider Jason DaSilva's To Be Continued, the beautiful story of the reunion of a nine-member New Orleans brass band whose members were scattered across America--from Georgia to California--after Katrina. The To Be Continued Brass Band formed in high school in 2005 to raise money for its marching band's uniforms and quickly rose to popularity before Katrina hit. Over 75 minutes, all of their personalities come through, and the band's 22-year-old leader, Jason Slack, emerges as a persistent protagonist as passionate about his music as anybody else in the Crescent City. The documentary serves as a testament to willpower and it evinces the power of the music and the movie itself.

The epitome of this close-to-the-bone aesthetic, though, is Beyond Beats and Rhymes, an examination of hip hop, the culture that created it and the culture that it spawns. Director and narrator Byron Hurt, a former quarterback at Northeastern University, gives the genre an unrelenting, hard stare, questioning its stance on misogyny, hypersexuality, materialism, homophobia, homoeroticism, hypocrisy and the resultant stereotype perpetuation. Hurt employs some of the genre's commercial and critical pinnacles for fodder, the video for 50 Cent's "Many Men" illustrating hip-hop's violence-survivor street cred and the lyrics of N.W.A.'s "A Bitch is a Bitch" underlying hip hop's objectification of women. None of this is exactly new, as hip hop's ethics have been debated for nearly two decades.

But Hurt makes it compelling by taking it personally, allowing that internalized passion to bleed onto the reels and affect the outcome. To wit, the documentary opens with a monologue from Hurt: "I love hip hop. I listen to that music, I party to that music, I listen to hip hop to this day ... I'm just trying to get us men to take a long, hard look at ourselves." Immediately, it's personal, Hurt's ingenious method revealing the passion that made what follows possible.

He doesn't let himself off easy, questioning his own intentions and motives before questioning his subjects'. As expected, Hurt doesn't let his subjects off any easier. No one gets free passes or gets to forgo the tough questions. If they do attempt to evade the questions, as with B.E.T. Senior Vice President Stephen Hall, they seem like scum.

"You should look at people who make the videos," Hall tells Hurt, 10 seconds before he simply ignores other questions. "We are in some part a video channel, and we play the videos that are given to us."

Hurt isn't a sycophant. He interviews some of the game's biggest players--Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, Russell Simmons, Jadakiss--and systematically makes them look like ignorant entertainers in denial if need be. In the documentary's two most compelling segments, Hurt explores homophobia in hip hop and its often-overlooked corollary, homoeroticism. Sitting in the studio with Busta Rhymes, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Hurt asks about the homophobic stance of the music. Surprisingly, Busta answers with a defiant, flustered pass: "I can't partake in that conversation. That homo shit? I can't talk to you about that. I ain't trying to offend nobody, but what I represent culturally doesn't condone it." Even Mos Def (but not Kweli) seems put off by the question.

Hurt smartly chooses to castigate the world culture in which hip hop sells so well, too: From Hollywood stupidity to hypermasculine politicos, he holds it all to his highly researched litmus test. But these aren't idle complaints, as Hurt actually suggests a solution. At B.E.T.'S dirrrtySouth, debauched "Spring Bling," Hurt asks a group of women if hip hop's misogyny offends them.

"It's not really directed towards you personally. It's just what they saying. Sex sells. If you don't take offense to it ... I know he's not talking to me," one woman in a bikini replies after being groped by full-grown men for days on end.

But Hurt recants in a monologue: "If George Bush was to get on national TV, and start calling black people 'niggas,' would you be like, 'I don't know who George Bush is talking about, but he ain't talkin' about me?'"

His solution: Take it personally. It's your money and your mind. Ponder: Is hip hop the new cigarette?

Two other films--both part of the Katrina programming--fail to establish the intimacy and commitment of Beyond Beats. Particularly disappointing is Putting the River in Reverse, a film about a post-hurricane collaboration between legendary rhythm 'n' blues songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint and New Wave-and-then-some rocker Elvis Costello. And there's too much to take in in New Orleans Music in Exile, an effective but busy film featuring The Iguanas, Irma Thomas, Eddie Bo, Cyril Neville, World Leader Pretend and too many more telling the story of how they fled New Orleans and what their plans are for continuing as a band. No matter the strength of the musical performances or the intimacy of the scenes (as the credits roll, Costello lounges on a couch, singing as Toussaint taps the song out on a piano), both films feel cold and impersonal. With River,that's not surprising, as it will likely serve as a promotional bit for the release of the pair's album in June.

While the failings of Exile are perhaps the result of having too much, the lack of depth in the Costello-Toussaint pairing is as perplexing as it is disappointing. Toussaint begins to show through as something of a mystic, a warm-hearted man who runs his hands across antique furniture to feel its indelible memories, but Costello just seems like an uninteresting performer (he's anything but). Their relationship is treated at the surface, and a litany of questions remain at River's end: What brought them together? What are Toussaint's true feelings on his hometown and his government's betrayal? Why did it take a disaster for outsiders to evince their appreciation of his land's music? These issues are as important as the music itself, and they go unanswered in this sterile feature.

There's nothing sterile about two headed cow, a 70-minute look at Dexter Romweber, the Chapel Hill musician who combined an adoration of '50s rock 'n' roll, blues, gospel soul, rockabilly and spiritually possessed poetry in the seminal Flat Duo Jets. Director Tony Gayton seems fully aware of the orthodox pitfalls of documentaries about quasi-obscure rock dignitaries, and he systematically avoids them. Lesser films often come marred by a mammoth cast of more famous talking heads who sing the praises of the subject and often tell the story.

But Gayton wisely chooses to only begin and end the film with commentary from Chan Marshall, Exene Cervenka, Jason Edge, Jack White and Neko Case, with the latter two appearing elsewhere in the film. Romweber navigates much of the movie himself, detailing his suicidal, withdrawn and uncomfortable tendencies through a series of telling scenes. Romweber talks with candor about his worst work (he terms the Jets' last album, Lucky Eye, "a mega-disappointment") and the financial dishonesty of his beloved bandmate, Chris "Crow" Smith. Smith isn't given an opportunity to respond to those charges on film, but, in a conversation with the Independent, he denies them. Gayton gets at Romweber's neuroses with sympathy and paints a careful, meticulous picture full of the minutiae that make Romweber human. He strings his guitar, takes his anti-depressants, worries about money and loves his mother.

After the Jets split in 1998, Romweber says his disgust with music was so strong he refused to write songs and became suicidally depressed. But--in a movie that includes Romweber walking through a graveyard and standing on a cliff--he gets personal, explaining why he couldn't do it: "Death was haunting me ... There was a million things about it that would seem so welcome ... And then I realized, I knew it before, but I realized I'm not one of those that could actually do it."

Luckily, things just don't get much more personal than that.

Dexter Romweber and Chris "Crow" Smith will play separate sets on Saturday, April 8 at 10:30 p.m. at the Carolina Theatre.

Correction (April 12, 2006): This article left out the name of To Be Continued's co-director and co-producer, Colleen O'Halloran.

  • The best music documentaries get down to the real root notes.

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