Hip hop is as obsessed with its mysterious origins as the hero of any Marvel Comics series, and John Carluccio's documentary history of the DJ, Battle Sounds, reflects that curiosity. How, the film wonders, could the ingenious process of vinyl scratching arise? Hallowed elder Grandwizard Theodore has one answer. He was blasting his tunes up in his room, Theodore recalls, when his mother came down the hall to complain about the loud music. Startled, he grabbed the turntable to silence the record, and was enthralled by the sound the vinyl grooves made being dragged back under the needle. He let the record spin a bit, then jiggered it backward again. And again. And so, a new musical style was born.
Did it really go down like that? Well, Theodore does repeat the same story in Freestyle, Kevin Fitzgerald's documentary examination of the development of MCing. Besides, the fact that the story has the ring of apocrypha and yet earns acknowledgment from two documentarians makes it that much more exciting; I find myself wanting it all the more to be "true." After all, hip hop always runs into trouble when it tries to pinpoint literal truth. Do the music's origins lie in Jamaican toasting? In bop? Dozens? Sermons? Talking drums?
Fitzgerald isn't the first historian to make the case for all of these styles as a source without being able to empirically demonstrate a definite connection. And yet hip hop has drawn sustenance from each of these forms, and, more important, has redefined itself each time it goes back to its supposed roots. In other words, there's a cultural, poetic truth regarding the music that can't quite be plotted out on paper. Or onscreen.
That distinction between literal and figurative truth is just one of the questions raised by the "Sound Unseen" festival, a sprawling eight-day series of some 30 documentary and fictional films that descends upon Minneapolis this week. Curated by U Film Society's Nate Johnson, "Sound Unseen" is a daunting collection of music-related films, ranging in subject matter from surveys of the punk, indie, and hip-hop scenes to an examination of die-hard collectors of 8-track tapes. Various live performances and events--including appearances by many of the directors and the people in front of the lens--have been scheduled to keep your legs awake between screenings.
While this is far too extensive an array for one to suggest that a single "theme" runs through all these films, some common questions about documenting musical history do arise. Let's return to Battle Sounds (Saturday, October 7 at Bell Auditorium; Wednesday, October 11 at Bryant-Lake Bowl) and Freestyle (Friday, October 13 at Bryant-Lake Bowl), as viewed within this festival context. Just as no "genuine" documentary captures the spirit of the Beatles' cultural moment as fully as the mock documentary A Hard Day's Night, so the quasi-verité Wild Style (Friday, October 6 at Bell Auditorium) and even the glitzier Beat Street (Thursday, October 12 at Bell Auditorium) capture an energy that no pure hip-hop doc can quite encapsulate--including those two fine surveys mentioned earlier. After viewing the whole lot, we come to the realization that the myths that musicians and their fans trade in--the DIY democracy of Olympia, Washington's punks; or the spiritual power of the rave as evangelized by techno kids--are as important as any factual record.
The question that remains is, Who gets to authorize those myths? On one hand, we have the filmmakers, whose interviews and editing choices create historical narrative and preserve it for posterity. On the other, we have the musicians whose art seems to set the whole process in motion, and who recycle their stories for the documentarians' benefit. What many of these films wind up documenting, even more than the events that play out onscreen, is the tension between these two kinds of artists, each in search of their own vision of the truth.
Someone, somewhere, started a silly rumor (probably it was Jann Wenner) that musicians are interesting people. Of course, just like plumbers and ophthalmologists and actuaries and whoever happens to live in the apartment three doors down from you, musicians can very well be interesting folks. I hate to disparage the valiant efforts of video editors to splice the talking-head blather of personages more famous than we are into gripping narratives. But the lamentable fact is that one's charisma doesn't necessarily jump proportionately to one's rocketing sales.
And, no matter what indie-rock contrarians protest, the converse isn't true either. Take K Records impresario Calvin Johnson, seen here in both Songs for Cassavetes (Sunday, October 8 and Wednesday, October 11 at Bell Auditorium) and The Shield Around the K (Wednesday, October 11 at Bryant-Lake Bowl), as well as in the flesh at the Bryant-Lake Bowl showcase. Johnson demonstrates that you don't have to be famous to appear as tedious as the Band's Robbie Robertson ever was in The Last Waltz--and for exactly the same reason. Ask people to outline their achievements on camera and they'll almost inevitably sound pompous. People celebrating their own accomplishments are not very persuasive narrators.
They can be quite persuasive, however, if you're already a fan, in which case access to even the outermost thoughts of your idols is supposedly some kind of gift. For this expectation of wisdom from our entertainers, we can thank the holy trinity of the Sixties--the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan. After all, no one ever expected Elvis to share any insight into his personality--you came away from his interviews seeming to know less about his music. But the Sixties rock figureheads were photogenic not just physically but intellectually as well: Their presence and image intimated intriguing thought processes. Lennon was fascinating enough to remain enigmatic no matter how much he said; Dylan was enigmatic enough to seem fascinating no matter how little he let on, and Jagger was wily enough to fake either an enigmatic or a fascinating appearance as the case demanded.