Picking up where the flawed 2000 doc “Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme” left off, “This Is the Life” is a sharp, thoroughly enjoyable exploration of seminal South Los Angeles hip-hop hotspot the Good Life Cafe. Written and directed by former cafe habitue Ava DuVernay, the docu is clearly the product of real love, bubbling over with enthusiastic performances and an indelible sense of place. The film’s appeal is decidedly niche, as it makes few concessions to those not already well versed in hip-hop history, but those who are will delight in discovering it. Limited L.A run begins today.
The Good Life Cafe was a health-food store in South Central L.A. that held open-mic hip-hop nights once a week from 1989-95, a period that just happened to coincide with hip-hop’s sudden maturation into a culturally and commercially significant medium. As such, the cafe became ground zero for the burgeoning L.A. scene and an eclectic melting pot of black youth culture, with college students, gang members, hippies, Five Percenters and churchgoers alike all meeting to trade rhymes. The scene was especially fruitful for the subgenre that would later be tagged “conscious” or “alternative” hip-hop, with groups Jurassic 5, Freestyle Fellowship and the Project Blowed collective among its best-known alumni.
Fortunately, the Good Life performances were also well documented by videocamera-wielding audience members (Brian “B+” Cross in particular), and an impressive array of top-drawer music clips augment DuVernay’s interviews with scenesters, which are likewise extensive. She breaks the film down into loose segments spotlighting each notable emcee from the scene, all of whom had brushes with fame, and very few of whom seem bitter about having missed out on it.
At times, the film’s egalitarian impulses work against it, with some truly interesting artists like Medusa and Abstract Rude (not to mention the colorful stoner-rap pioneer Ganjah K, who sits for an interview while hugging his 6-foot bong) almost getting lost in the shuffle. A more focused docu would have worked to bring the most intriguing stories to the forefront, rather than simply laying out a grab bag of artists and characters.
But ultimately, the film’s lackadaisical approach is part of its appeal, and an appropriate way to evoke the innocent days when rap was more about block parties and barbecues than musicvideos and record deals. Coming so soon after the hagiographic Biggie Smalls biopic, “Notorious,” the film also serves as a reminder that, as hip-hoppers get older and more reflective, it’s just as important to remember the influential also-rans as it is to further burnish the superstars.
On a technical level, the film is assembled with great style. Especially welcome is the presence of graffiti artist Mear One, who cleverly makes up for the key Good Life performances not captured on video by sketching the scenes in fast-forward, while audio plays behind him.