20 February 2015 | bob the moo
A pleasantly surprising film in that it avoids hype and is more personal and probing than I expected
Although I had heard positive reviews for this rap documentary, I held off from watching it because I assumed it would be a puff piece of sorts – probably very well made but ultimately filled with the hype and bravado that most of hip-hop seems to bring. It was a very pleasant surprise then to find that it was really nothing of the sort. Outside of a few aspects which can be forgiven, what we actually get is a film that is surprisingly close to Nas and his family, and looks at the root to that album, rather than specifically celebrating the album itself.
The nature of the film will mean that, like me, you probably will sync Illmatic to your ipod, or put on the CD as the credits are still rolling, because there is plenty of the music and contributions to say what an influence it was, but I think for most viewers all of this will be stuff they already knew. What makes the film of value then is that it takes its time to wander into the past. I am a casual fan of hip-hop, but generally do not know much more beyond the music, so for me it was interesting to spend time with Nas' brother and father, to understand more about the environment they grew up in, and the things they had to process and deal with. The film is not the most insightful, but it is certainly a lot deeper than I had expected, and there are moments where you can see the impact on Nas and his family, even to look back on events is tough on them.
The contributions vary through the film. At first there is a fairly typical spread of talking heads saying positive things, but after this the film does focus on Nas and in particular Jungle; there is a certain amount of guardedness about them perhaps, but they are also open about their past, and willing to be affected by what was and what could have been – no tears or great emotion, but you do get the feeling that they are being themselves rather than carefully marketed images, The film is technically well put together, with a good mix of photographs, archive footage, and current material, and although it is short at only 70- odd minutes, it does feel like it gets a lot in there in that time.
I guess those with no interest or knowledge of Nas or his music will not have too much to hook onto, but for even the casual viewer such as myself, this nor only captures why Illmatic was important, but also gives a good base of background to the man, his achievement, and his background – all of which is pretty interesting and very well presented here.