‘Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss’ Review: Gone-Too-Soon Rapper Tells His Story in Elegiac Documentary

The ascendant performer died long before his time, but his legacy only continues to grow, chronicled in this inside-view portrait.

Juice Wrld
Courtesy of HBO

Juice WRLD’s untimely death two years ago did little to snuff out his burgeoning stardom — quite the opposite, in fact. As evidenced by the very existence of Tommy Oliver’s documentary “Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss,” the rapper’s impact on those around him — to say nothing of his legions of fans — continues to be felt today. The film’s vérité, behind-the-scenes look at his trials and tribulations may feel surface-level to those unfamiliar with Juice, but his many admirers will likely consider it essential viewing.

One of the first things we hear Juice say in the film is “I pop Percs to numb all the pain ’cause it hurts to live,” a line delivered with characteristic effortlessness in one of the many freestyle raps he performs. Like just about everything else he ever wrote and recorded, this one is “from the dome” — off the top of his head and not written in advance. That painful admission is followed by testimonials from his peers in the music business, all of whom are effusive in their praise of the late artist’s abilities: “Juice wasn’t trying to be that,” music-video director Cole Bennett says, “Juice just became that.”

What follows is a warts-and-all experience, with raw footage of Juice and his entourage drinking, smoking, and otherwise partying backstage and in hotel rooms; even here, he freestyles almost compulsively — it was like an ever-flowing stream that couldn’t be dammed. In addition to Percocet, Juice was especially fond of, and dependent on, lean — a slang term for soda mixed with codeine-infused cough syrup, a dangerous mix that was equally popular (and deadly) among a number of his genre forebears.

The artist born Jarad Anthony Higgins rapped openly about anxiety and depression, the result being songs that are as intimate as they are anthemic. Juice was part of the SoundCloud rap movement, also known as emo rap, whose practitioners deliver intimate confessionals in a mumbly vocal style that’s as popular as it is polarizing. His untimely demise wasn’t a rarity within that genre: Lil Peep, the subject of a similar documentary, died of an accidental overdose two weeks after his 21st birthday; the controversial XXXTentacion was only 20 at the time of his 2018 murder.

Not unlike 2Pac before him, Juice was fixated on his own mortality — something he’s asked about in a radio interview included in the film, with an interviewer repeating Juice’s line “What’s the 27 Club? We’re not making it past 21” back to him. The artist responds “everybody’s dying young” even as he insists that he isn’t “foreshadowing” anything about himself. Juice died of an accidental-overdose-induced seizure six days after his 21st birthday. The fact that “Into the Abyss” likely wouldn’t exist if its subject still did makes it an inherently tragic undertaking, with exchanges like this — of which there are several — only amplifying the sorrow.

Still, it isn’t joyless. When he performs, onscreen text shows many streams and YouTube views the song in question received: “Lucid Dreams” was played more than one billion times on Spotify, while “Robbery” has racked up more than 400 million YouTube views. To call the fans at these concerts adoring is an understatement. Juice was as much an icon of musical ability as he was of vulnerability, and “Into the Abyss” is at his best when capturing the thin, increasingly blurry line between medicinal and recreational use of the drugs he was first prescribed at an extremely young age.

But there isn’t much more to the film than that. Those looking for never-before-seen footage of a gone-too-soon artist they were already fans of will surely be pleased, while anyone hoping for true insight into Juice will be left wanting. Perhaps in an attempt to mirror its subject’s frame of mind, the film feels amorphous. Juice is almost always on something here, showing off how many pills are on his tongue before swallowing them in one scene and dozing off mid-sentence in another. “Want one?” he asks his videographer after waking up; the man behind the camera accepts the pill offered to him. Juice then crushes one up on his Nintendo Switch and snorts it as his girlfriend lies passed out on his lap. Given the nature of his death, “Into the Abyss” can at times feel like an account of a slow-motion suicide.

The talking-head interviews are only featured at the beginning and end, which is when those who knew Juice offer their thoughts on his drug use and recount the circumstances of his death. This includes his girlfriend, Ally Lotti, who has to close her eyes when remembering that night, as well as his mother; seeing them, you can’t help wondering why they of all people have such brief appearances. If Juice felt unreachable, even unknowable in life, he seems even more so now — and the film bearing his name does little to change that.

‘Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss’ Review: Gone-Too-Soon Rapper Tells His Story in Elegiac Documentary

Reviewed online, Nov. 12, 2021. (In AFI Fest.) Running time: 110 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Ringer Films production, in association with Confluential Films. Producers: Tommy Oliver, Keith Gionet, Carmella Wallace. Executive producers: Bill Simmons, Jody Gerson, Marc Cimino.
  • Crew: Director: Tommy Oliver. Camera: Tommy Oliver. Editors: Tommy Oliver, Joe Kehoe.
  • With: Juice WRLD, Benny Blanco, The kid Larol, Cole Bennett, Ally Lotti, Carmela Wallace.