Less electrifying than a live Public Enemy show but packing more energy than 12 standard-issue music docs combined, “Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome” is among the best of its kind — intimate, powerful, politically astute and absorbing. One needn’t be a PE fan or even a rap fan to find something enthralling in this definitive portrait of a group and an era that changed the face of popular music. Doc should have a healthy run in arthouse, alternative or broadcast channels.
There’s some argument during the film — which helmer Robert Patton-Spruill has woven together from performance footage, homemovies and interviews with various PE partisans — whether the groundbreaking Public Enemy ranks as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones of rap.
The analogies are off: When they came together 20 years ago, leadman Chuck D, court jester Flavor Flav and the indefinable Professor Griff constituted the Michael Jordan of militant hip-hop, raising the level of the game and leaving the competition flatfooted. During a show at the Apollo in 1992 — Queen Latifah was the opening act — the group hammered out a cacaphonous polyrhythmic spell that was musically and even chemically hallucinatory.
Patton-Spruill gets it, as do the people he interviews, such as primal rocker Henry Rollins, Talib Kweli or Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Via his limited but effective musical-historical survey, the director presents the still-gestating rap scene as it existed in the late ’80s, setting the stage for PE to extrapolate from the free-floating elements of early hip-hop and synthesize them into a potent formula.
Patton-Spruill’s triptych construction gives equal time to PE’s three main men, and by beginning with Chuck D — always the dominant writer, performer and spokesman for the group — sets the film up as one long anticlimax. He gets away with it, though; the interviews and career assessments are ingratiatingly frank, including when they touch on Flavor Flav’s recent forays into cheesy TV, which are bluntly described as a sellout. The more militant but less flamboyant Professor Griff is revealed as thoughtful and charismatic. Even S1W (Security of the First World), the camo-suited sentries who guard the stage during PE shows, get their closeup.
Production values are a work in progress, as is the sound. But the collage-like assemblage of various video, film and DV formats feels true to a group for whom standards of conformity have never been a concern.