The rap on the hip-hop music scene gets full vent in “Rhyme & Reason.” A breathless mix of music and info, the film should score only fair theatrical returns but will be a solid mover in ancillaries. Though eminently entertaining, it’s decidedly aimed at the cognoscenti and unlikely to draw wider audiences on the bigscreen.
Filmed over what appears to be at least a decade, “Rhyme & Reason” crams in an awful lot in a little more than 90 minutes. In addition to the music and artists, it wrestles with the history of African-American music from a sociological perspective. It’s an assault on the senses and a fact-loaded primer.
Pic is unquestionably ambitious, but one can’t help but conclude that the filmmakers have tried to cover all the bases without examining in depth any one of hip-hop’s myriad components. For starters, the music winds up taking a back seat to the talk. Those expecting a concert film will have to look elsewhere, as only fragments of performances are featured. While much time is devoted to discussion of the genre’s diversity of styles and content, there’s little on film here that actually underlines the point.
Practitioners talk of its roots as evolving from such styles as gospel, jazz, the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and disco. Artist KRS-ONE offers the concise analysis that “rap is done, hip-hop you live” to introduce much of what’s observed about the practicality and social background of the phenom.
The perfect blend of both genres found its place in the art of the scratch — the process of creating sounds by manipulating a record with your finger and pushing it rhythmically back and forth. It was an easy way for a disc jockey to get more out of his platters.
Unlike the black pop artists who emerged in the 1950s and ’60s as the vanguard of rock, the current group appears to be more business-savvy and therefore less exploited by record labels and managers. But it is only a comparative improvement. The hostility toward the Establishment that emerges in interviews with people such as Ice-T is palpable. There’s also an unsettling quality to coverage of the murder of Tupac Shakur — a late addition to the film.
Filmmaker Peter Spirer’s zeal and fascination with his subject matter make “Rhyme & Reason” a watchable, sometimes engrossing experience. But pic suffers from having too much cinematic “free style” — the rhyming skill that’s central to hip-hop. As one artist aptly observes, if you’re not prepared, “Do not free-style, you’ll get caught out.”