This documentary is a lot smarter than you might expect, but not quite as smart as you might like. It raises a lot of really interesting questions about hiphop culture and mixtapes, but it doesn't quite dig into some of the questions it raises, and other parts drag a bit. Overall, it runs just a bit too long, and gets somewhat repetetive. Still though, it's a pretty fascinating movie.
To start with the negatives - the voice over is kind of painful. Walter Bell wrote and directed the movie, but he should have found someone else to do the talking, because his voice is annoying as hell. And his commentary is rarely as interesting as that of the people he's interviewing - he tends towards a "fight the power! you can't stop us!" kind of thing, but delivered without much passion. His voice is very flat. It's especially notable because so many of the people he's interviewing speak with the easy rhythms of those who have learned to use their voice as a musical instrument in ways that are extremely pleasing to the ear, so his droning comes off all the worse in contrast.
Secondly, the documentary trick of zooming in on newspaper headlines, etc, to provide a visual counterpart to the narrative is wildly overused and starts to seem like a cheap gimmick. For the most part, the film has a pretty cool aesthetic that is well-rooted in hiphop culture, the visual aspects of which don't generally get as much attention as they deserve. But at times one wishes the film had a slightly bigger budget, because some of it looks like it was made by somebody who just started a class on graphic design.
That said though, the film is quite well done, and takes a really interesting perspective on some of the questions it raises.
For instance, the main focus for discussing the legal crack-down on mixtapes is this guy Alan Berry, a record store owner from Indiana. This is not a dude whom you would expect to be facing jailtime over his love of hiphop. He's a flannel shirt wearing type dude who admits early on that in his earlier life, he was a die-hard Ozzie fan who thought that hiphop sucked. listening to him talk about his conversion to hiphop is great, and takes on stereotypes of hiphop fans with brilliant subtlety. He's a really fascinating voice in the film, not least because so much of the movie is about how hiphop is the music of the ghetto, the streets, etc - and this guy is just not a part of that scene. So he has this curious perspective that is simultaneously insider and outsider, with a liberal, and justified, dose of bitterness.
Another thing that I found really interesting was the discussion of mixtape culture alongside bootleg culture. This is an area where the film really could have delved a bit deeper. Because what really struck me about it is that this is another one of those fascinating cases of marginalized subgroups at odds with each other, and the fact that the bootleggers are almost entirely poor immigrants trying to get ahead in America is not irrelevant. There's a subtle tinge of xenophobia beneath some of the discussions of bootleggers, and perhaps in the perspective of the film at large? This could just be my beef though. I get really annoyed when filmmakers feel the need to provide subtitles for a person speaking accented English. Give me a fucking break. You don't need subtitles to understand what the guy is saying.
The bootleg issue connects also to the music piracy question. To me, it is completely obvious that mixtapes are a completely different sort of animal, but I think it was a smart move on the part of filmmakers to take these questions seriously, and the resulting discussion of the current state of the music industry was fascinating. Raises some interesting issues about the clash between art and industry as a whole, about what art is for, etc. There's a great moment, actually, when this incredibly sweet-faced kid compares himself to people in business school, talking about how he's gone out and read all these books, he's an enterpreneur, he knows what he's doing - damn straight he does. Likewise, the discussion of 50 Cent's success focuses partly on his talent, but mostly on the fact that dude is a hustla'. He's very fucking smart when it comes to making money.
Finally, there's the interesting issue of what happens when something underground goes mainstream. Because although no one ever says it, in some ways, making it big was the worst thing that could have happened to mixtapes. This is most forcefully brought out, for me, by the interview with Kanye West. Because here's the thing, is once your mixtapes make you a name, you gonna start saving your best stuff for your albums, because that's where da money at (though personally, I thought that thePrelude to Graduation was a lot hotter than the actual album).
Hands down though, the best thing about the movie is the way it manages to capture the people being interviewed - the film is intimate and chatty, you feel like you're just sitting around shooting the shit with the people involved. Random non-sequitors, dirty jokes - none of that gets cut out. The movie honors the people in it by allowing them to talk about what's closest to their heart, and it's much more rewarding as a result. Seeing DJ Boogie's first mixtape, not to mention his adorable smile, melts your damn heart. And Kanye, of course, is an irreverent delight as always - "but with mixtapes... it's like fast food. It's like pussy. A nigga get too much pussy, they don't know it's tight no mo'". The man's got a way with words. Though I can't help but wonder wtf is going on with homebody to his left, who appears to be sound asleep with his mouth open for most of his scenes. Heh heh.
All in all, it may be on the long side, but it's a good time. I'd put it on the definitely ought to see list for any hiphophead, but even somebody who's not into the scene could find it interesting as social and cultural commentary. Check it out. IMDB, oddly enough, doesn't have an entry for it, but it's available from Netflix.