San Francisco documentarian Kevin Epps' "Rap Dreams" trains his camcorder on the realities of Bay Area African-American youth. Feature tracks three aspiring rappers whose single-minded pursuit of stardom might be seen by some as inspiring, by others as pipe-dreaming.
Following up his surprisingly well-traveled, hourlong 2003 “Straight Outta Hunters Point,” San Francisco documentarian Kevin Epps’ “Rap Dreams” again trains his camcorder on the realities of Bay Area African-American youth. Feature tracks three aspiring rappers whose single-minded (if not very successful) pursuit of stardom might be seen by some as inspiring, by others as pipe-dreaming. While improving somewhat on the rough-hewn “Straight,” “Dreams” still sports its hazy grasp on narrative structure and focus. Nevertheless, what’s here is involving enough to play well in festival travel and DVD sales. Limited local theatrical runs commenced in mid-March.Pic follows, over a presumed course of several years (passage of time is among several aspects that could be better articulated), Kev Kelley, Hectic and Mistah FAB, twentysomethings who’ve rapped since childhood. Each is sure he’ll make it — but then, as one long passage makes clear about two-thirds of the way through, so does just about every African-American youth under 35 with any semblance of rhyming skill. Tracks are recorded and videos made. But the market seems glutted, the big break ever-elusive. Meanwhile, adult responsibilities accrue (including child support), necessitating less-than-glamorous day jobs. Trio won’t give up their dream easily, but what are the odds of real success? A grumpy voice of reason is provided by Kev’s uncle, who sits behind a desk in suit and tie (at first one assumes he’s a school principal) to dismiss rap (or pro sports) dreams as “fool’s gold.” How many aspirants will ever enter that rarefied winner’s circle where bling flows? (One might also note that this year’s breakout rapper is often next year’s back-to-broke has-been.) Better to invest all that energy in education, training and gainful employment, he thunders. Uncle’s frames of references might be old-fashioned enough to laugh off (he thinks entertainers need to be multi-talents “like Sammy Davis Jr.”), but he’s got a point. On the other hand, it’s hard to blame ghetto youth for chasing rainbows when their immediate reality is so bleak — or when their neighborhoods’ prevailing models for success are get-rich-quick dealers and thugz rather than the hard-working wage slaves Uncle applauds. Lead personalities are engaging enough, with Mistah FAB coming off as the rapper with the most distinctive and infectious style. While there are numerous informational gaps and awkward narrative leaps, pic remains engrossing — even if its ending leaves everyone’s dreams still up in the air, perhaps for good. Verite lensing is serviceable, editing better at shaping individual sequences than a whole arc; voiceover narration (presumably read by the helmer) is stilted.