Two of my all time favorite films are 2000's “High Fidelity” and “Almost Famous”. One is an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel of the same name about a thirtysomething music obsessed record store owner dealing with his most recent break up, the other is a semi autobiographical film about a young Rock writer based on Cameron Crowe’s time spent as a teenaged Rock journalist during the early 70's. Both films are everything a music and film loving former record store manager/employee would love. Keep in mind a few things that make these films stand out even more in the minds of Gen X’ers like myself…
First of all, both films came out during quite an interesting span of 6 months in 2000 (between March 31st, 2000 and September 15th, 2000). The Dot Com Bubble had just recently burst, in the following weeks several companies saw their stock shares plummet and the entire tech sector was in complete upheaval. Anyone that was either employed by a startup or was operating one was really going through it during this time. In addition, we were deeply entrenched in the Napster Era. Both PC and Mac users had access to P2P sites like Napster & LimeWire (ed2k was only for Windows or Linux users) which caused the music box stores to see a significant drop in their profits.
Even independent record stores were beginning to feel the squeeze. I should know, I was employed at a used CD/DVD store at the time (RIP CD Spins) having been a former manager at Tower Records where MTS Inc. was in the red due to a questionable decision they made back in May 1998. When I first saw “High Fidelity” back in April 2000 it was like seeing my life (parts of it, at least) playing out in front of me. “High Fidelity” represents a time before independent record stores began disappearing left and right and I had multiple vinyl spots to frequent. We didn’t have Internet 24/7 back then so the record store itself served as our social network. This era is forever preserved in amber with that film.
I was still working at CD Spins (though I quit that same month) when I first saw “Almost Famous”. During my time at CD Spins I read a lot of books, two that really stood out were Legs McNeil’s “Please Kill Me” and a beat up, dog eared paperback copy of “Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung” by Lester Bangs that we kept behind the counter at all times. We’d often have Rock debates on and off in the store (and directly outside of it) that customers would join in on. “Almost Famous” was one of those films that spoke to those of us that fell in love with music at a young age and never let go of it, much like the protagonist William Miller.
This all brings us to the reason I felt compelled to write this piece in the first place. As I watch both “High Fidelity” and “Almost Famous”, two films I love as a former record store guy, music nerd and music historian/journalist I can’t help but notice that Hip Hop doesn’t have any films equivalent to either of them. Considering that Hip Hop culture is 40 years old, Rap music has appeared in recorded form for 35 years come this Summer and today (May 4th, 2014) marks the 30th anniversary of the opening of the first major studio Hip Hop film (“Breakin’”). And NO, “Brown Sugar” doesn’t count.
When you watch “Brown Sugar” at no point do you get the feeling that the main characters really ate, lived, breathed Hip Hop. I mean, they SAY they do but there’s no real conviction in those onscreen performances. Compare the (short) scene where Sidney and Dre are discussing Hip Hop versus the scene where the wide eyed William Miller speaks to Lester Bangs in the diner (played masterfully by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) in “Almost Famous”.
The sequence in “Brown Sugar” almost seems like certain details or specific songs to mention were given as notes to the actors between takes. I’ve had Hip Hop discussions with people that love Hip Hop as much as I do before. Long ones. Short ones. Let me tell you, that shit simply seemed neither authentic nor believable. It’s the writer’s job to make the audience suspend belief and towards that end, this scene fails miserably.
Case in point, in Ava DuVernay’s brilliant film “I Will Follow” the main character Maye has a discussion with her nephew Raven about Nas and that scene is great (“I Will Follow” is available to stream on Amazon so you can see exactly what I’m talking about. Get your shit together, Netflix!). It’s totally believable, no one who actually loves Hip Hop couldn’t suspend belief because it looked and sounded like a real Rap debate/discussion between two heads. Mind you, “I Will Follow” is about various themes far removed from music but that small scene alone rendered the entire film “Brown Sugar” moot & unwatchable.
If you contrast the soulless scenes in which Sidney and Dre discuss Hip Hop in “Brown Sugar” they only discuss it in passing and never go into any type of real detail versus the sequences featuring the passionate music discussions Rob has with his employees Dick & Barry at Championship Vinyl in “High Fidelity” you can further understand my position. As a Hip Hop head and a former record store employee I could relate to those scenarios immediately because I lived it. However, I don’t recall ever having such a subdued conversation as Sidney & Dre had while reminiscing about the things I truly love above Hip Hop from my childhood and adolescence with friends that grew up in it like I did. Never in life.
There was no point in “Almost Famous” where I didn’t believe that William Miller didn’t love Rock with every fiber of his being. I completely bought that Penny Lane and her Band Aids were so enamored with the music that they willingly gave of themselves to become muses for Rock stars (amongst other things). I believed every single word that Billy Crudup and Jason Lee uttered on film in their roles as Russell Hammond and Jeff Bebe of Stillwater (I think the “Tiny Dancer” sing along cemented a lot). As an almost 40 year old Hip Hop fan where’s MY version of this experience captured on film? Where’s my Hip Hop equivalent of a music nerd moment in a dramatic film?
Hip Hop heads (especially those that are journalists like myself) swear by both “High Fidelity” and “Almost Famous”. Donwill of Rap group Tanya Morgan even made an amazing 2011 concept album called “Don Cusack in High Fidelity” totally inspired by it. His video for “Laura’s Song” was shot in Fat Beats (RIP) and replicated notable scenes from the film.
Heads related to this film because we saw music fans that were passionate just like we were. Unfortunately, they weren’t US. We just don’t see anything made for Hip Hop that depicts it the same manner Hollywood films depicts Rock. Is it too much to ask to see a major studio film that gives Hip Hop the respect, genuine love or gravity that the artform truly deserves? Why is this still the case in 2014?
As we all know, it ultimately comes down to numbers. Let’s not be naive here. Even when Rap overtook Country as the #1 selling music genre between 1997 and 2000 film studios were still tentative at releasing Hip Hop related films outside of documentaries. Of the Hip Hop related dramas that were released during this period (“Belly”, “Slam”, “Ghost Dog”, “Black & White”, etc.) none of them had the backers, producers, writers, directors, budget or cache either near nor equivalent to what “High Fidelity” or “Almost Famous” would ultimately have.
“High Fidelity” was an adaptation of a best selling novel that was highly anticipated and “Almost Famous” had Cameron Crowe at the helm as a writer/director. Classic Rock (repackaged over & over) has been the music industry’s chief money maker since the inception of the LP as the new industry standard (as opposed to the double sided 7" 45 RPM single) so they had a built in audience and nostalgia on their side from the outset. In short, Rock is the industry wide “default setting” and we’d be hard pressed to find multiple people who grew up in Hip Hop culture in positions of power at major film studios. Lastly, there’s no perceived need to make a Hip Hop culture themed drama in this mold a priority since mainstream Rap is at an all time creative low point as of 2014. That being said, what’s the alternative?
Earlier I mentioned Ava DuVernay’s scene from “I Will Follow” that actually captured the aesthetic of an authentic discussion between two Hip Hop fans. There’s a reason for that…it was written by an actual Hip Hop fan. Ava DuVernay was part of the burgeoning LA underground Hip Hop scene during the early 90's and in 2008 she made a brilliant documentary about the legendary Good Life Cafe which later gave birth to Project Blowed (think the Nuyorican Poets Cafe meets The Lyricist Lounge in NYC but it was first) titled “This Is The Life”.
Last year writer/director Neil Drumming released the Hip Hop themed drama “Big Words” about an influential underground Rap group fifteen years removed from their glory days. The dialogue and personal interaction between the characters in “Big Words” rang as true because they were written by an actual Hip Hop fan in his late 30's that grew up in and around the culture that experienced its peaks and valleys between 1979 and the present day who wanted to accurately convey these same feelings to the audience.
Although the writer of “Brown Sugar”, Michael Elliott grew up with Hip Hop and was a former writer for The Source he had no real say in the film’s direction as he didn’t produce (Peter Heller, Trish Hofmann & Magic Johnson did) or direct it (Rick Famuyiwa did). I can guarantee you that neither Peter Heller nor Trish Hofmann were overly concerned about whether or not the exchanges about Hip Hop would come across as authentic to the true heads watching this film. That wasn’t a priority, just is there enough comedy in it and is it marketable enough to cross over to a mainstream audience? These simply weren’t concerns when making either “High Fidelity” or “Almost Famous”.
In “Almost Famous” there are multiple scenes where William’s big sister Anita argues with her mother about the artistic value of Rock music. I remember having similar debates with my own mother defending Rap by contrasting her feelings about Rap to her own stories about how the elders reacted when Rock and R&B became popular with the young people during her teenage years in the deep South.
When Anita finally leaves home after another row with her mother (these aren’t spoilers, are they?) and gave William her hidden album collection I was instantly emotionally invested in the film from that moment on. Cameron Crowe knew exactly how that sequence would affect viewers and get them all to buy into what were undoubtedly the beginning stages of Wiliam’s love affair and intense passion for Rock. Question is who’s going to do the same or something similar for Hip Hop in film?
The answer to my previous question stares back at me every time I look in a mirror. The truth is that no one is going to make these film except for those of us who actually wonder where they are. No one will care to make a film centered around our experiences growing up with Hip Hop culture and the music that gives it the treatment, love and respect it deserves. No major film studio will make it a priority to create films that value authenticity over marketability and crossover potential to accurately show the sheer beauty, depth and complexity contained with the culture of Hip Hop.
It’s time we become our own Cameron Crowes, create our own Dreamworks SKG, write, produce, direct, market, promote and support the type of films that the Hollywood system refuses to make. There are organizations like AFFRM, Film Independent, The Sundance Institute (Film Forward & Women Filmmakers Initiative), IFC Films, etc in addition to crowd funding options like Kickstarter and Indiegogo in existence to help filmmakers and producers tell their stories and get them distributed. It all starts with us. If enough of these kinds of films are made that resonate with audiences and make them take notice then (and ONLY then) will anyone inside the Hollywood system even consider doing the same.
In conclusion, today is the 30th anniversary of the release of the first major studio Hip Hop culture related film. What we tend to forget is that it was preceded by the documentary “Style Wars” and the film “Wild Style” in 1983. When Hollywood realized that there was interest in Hip Hop culture and potential money to be made in 1984 they plundered these two independent films for characters and storylines for their studio films (“Breakin’”, “Beat Street”, “Body Rock” & “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”). It was about capitalizing on a rising fad and making a quick buck rather than showcasing the brilliance of this new American artform and what would become a global culture. Authenticity be damned.
We won’t see the type of films that take Hip Hop culture seriously enough to treat it with the same respect and care they do with Rock until a precedent is set that forces them to do so because now there’s value in it. In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch “High Fidelity” and “Almost Famous” while hoping more than a decade from now this piece helped to ultimately bring about the creation of the exact kind of films I’m hoping to see one day…or make myself.