SUNDANCE 2001 COVERAGE BEGINS: MORIARTY Drops The Needle On SCRATCH!!
Published at: Dec. 13, 2000, 5:19 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
As I sat down to write this piece, I clicked over to my WinAmp player and searched through my master playlist. I've got hundreds and hundreds of hours worth of music in my hard drive, all the CDs in the Labs dumped into the main system so it's just a mouse click away. I searched and found the album I was looking for, VIP by the Jungle Brothers. It's an infectious hip-hop collection fuelled in large part by their collaboration with DJ/producer Alex Gifford, the creative force behind The Propellerheads. I love writing to the album because of the sheer energy of the thing. I find that I frequently prowl Napster looking for remixes by DJs like MixMaster Mike or Jazzy Jay or DJ Shadow, in search of just the right piece of mood background for those wee hours of the morning when I'm sodden with Mountain Dew, trying to get one or two more articles finished for the night, trying to work my way through a batch of script pages. It's music that makes me feel alive, awake, that hits me somewhere deep in that lizard brain we all still carry around.
I also frequently sleep to playlists jammed full of this stuff, which is what I was doing last Wednesday morning around 10:00. The phone rang and I considered letting the voice-mail pick it up. There's too many projects that I'm working on, though, to lay there without guilt, so I jumped up and snagged the phone from the receiver, hoping I'd caught it in time. "Hello? Hello?" I rasped.
My brain was still trying to catch up with my body, and I wasn't sure what to make of the single word. "Hello? Who is this?"
"How many Dudes do you know?"
Just like that, I was awake. It was Jeff Dowd on the other end of the line, the one and only original Dude. This is the guy the Coens were writing about. I met the Dude through Harry, and I'm still a little in awe of the guy. He's nothing but energy and charisma and that real centered type of cool that comes from knowing exactly who you are and what you're good at. The Dude is a guru, a finder of films, a guide through the wilderness that indie filmmakers can find themselves wandering through. When you pick up the phone and it's the Dude on the other end, I don't care what you're doing. Get up. It's a call worth taking. "What's up, Dude?"
"What are you doing today at 2:00?"
"Whatever you say I'm doing today at 2:00."
The Dude laughed. "There's a film we're taking to Sundance. I think it's pretty good. You should come take a look at it." He gave me quick direction to the post house where the film would be screening.
"Sounds great, and I'll be there. What's the movie about?"
"Well..." The Dude paused, as if trying to figure out the best way to describe it. "It's called SCRATCH. It's about DJs... the guys who mix records for hip-hop."
That's all it took. I called John Robie at the Cathouse and interrupted him from his maniacal downloading of German scat porn. Together, we headed out to the screening room, arriving there a few minutes early. I was having a lack of sleep crisis, one of my eyes not really working properly. I'd been up until about eight o'clock that morning working on various projects, and the two hours I'd gotten hadn't been restful ones. I kept my eyes closed as Robie drove, swerving all over the road while waving his privates at passing female drivers. When we arrived, we spoke very briefly to the producers of the film in the hallway, and they seemed really nice, enthusiastic about showing the movie to us. I was still in mid-crisis, however, so I made my way into the theater and found my seat.
Robie and I sank into opposite ends of an insanely comfortable leather couch, and I took the fifteen minutes or so before the film's start to let the eye rest. I kept squinting out at the room around me as people arrived, and at one point, I started, both eyes coming open. MixMaster Mike, the DJ for the Beastie Boys, was walking into the room. He was followed by the Dude, who walked over and welcomed me.
After he introduced me around to everyone, he said he had to run a few errands, and he'd be back for the end of the film. He left, the lights went down, and SCRATCH kicked in. That pain in my eye? My lack of sleep? My tension about all the stuff I'd need to do on Thursday? All of it vanished. I was sucked into this film completely, held rapt from the very start.
The first thing you hear is jazz. Unmistakable cool blue tones, trumpet and upright bass against a shot of NYC streets. The music plays for a long moment before there's the shocking sound of the song being scratched once, then again, and then a beat drops in underneath, and with that simple elegant move, the case is laid out: jazz, one of the true American art forms, is the forefather of the scene we're examining in this movie, another art form that's unique in its language of sounds and textures, original in the way it uses noise and rhythm. It's as free and experimental as anything on BITCHES BREW or any of a dozen Sun Ra records. It is pure expression of something deeper than simple hit singles. It's more than music. It is philosophy.
Sounds like a heavy weight to place on a film's shoulders, right? I mean, placing an entire music scene into a fresh context, making the case that it is important and spiritual, that seems like a lot of work. Credit director Doug Pray with being more than up to the challenge. I saw his last film, HYPE!, which was a dissection of the Seattle music scene at the moment it exploded, and I thought it was good, not great. There is some wonderful footage in it, but the film didn't really clobber me. SCRATCH, on the other hand, kept me reeling as it unfolded. It's not just a great documentary. It's a great film. It captures a particular passion that seems to exist among the leaders in this musical community and makes it impossible for the viewer to stay outside that passion. Charismatic figures like DJ Shadow, DJ Qbert, and MixMaster Mike all draw us into the movie. These guys are so focused, so interesting, that we can't help but listen with fresh ears to the music in he movie.
Ah... the music in the movie. This is the best soundtrack I've heard in a hell of a long time. You want a guided tour through the history of the turntablist scene, a celebration of what makes DJs great? This is the film. We go all the way back to the originators of the sound, guys like DJ Premier and Grand Wizard Theodore. We see clips from WILD STYLE and we see Herbie Hancock perform "Rockit" on the Grammys with DXT, his DJ. We see live DJ battles between some truly amazing performers like DJ Qbert and DJ Craze and DJ Krush. We get to see the Invisibl Skratch Piklz at home and in their last-ever performance. What I'm struck by is how transitory these performances are. Like many of the great moments in jazz, these performances are for live audiences, and when they're over, they're gone. These filmmakers have preserved some amazing material, and it's one of the draws of the film.
I love the way the film is constructed, leading us without any narration through the history of the entire idea of scratching, the evolution of DJ and MC culture, the way the scene imploded then rebuilt itself differently. There's a real elegance to the cutting of the film by Pray, who edited AMERICAN PIMP for the Hughes Brothers between his own films. He's an intuitive, intelligent editor, and he manages some real grace notes here.
I love the realization I had while watching that these guys, all these young DJs who are so amazing to watch here, are just like me and my film geek friends, but with music. For us, there's the defining moment of STAR WARS in 1977 that sort of serves as our Dallas, November '63, our common cultural memory. For the guys who became DJs, that Grammy performance of "Rockit" seems to have the same effect. They all mention it as being the reason they got into the music in the first place, and they all describe the almost chemical change when they first heard a record scratching. That thrill of discovery, that sense that some secret's been revealed to you... I understand it. I was so moved by this recognition, this sudden empathy.
I love the fact that this is a positive look at members of the hip-hop community, a film that doesn't trade on the negatives, the gold chains and the guns and "bitches and hos" and all the trappings of the genre that always turn off certain audiences. Instead, the focus is on what the music means to these guys.
There's an awesome scene when DJ Shadow goes into a record store in San Francisco to show how he digs for records, always looking for that one hook no one's used, that forgotten gem. Digging is part of the scene, something for the hardcore mixer, and DJ Shadow's well known by the store owner. As a result, we get a peek at the store's basement, more a large crawlspace than anything, that's stuffed with records, packed tight with copies of everything ever. DJ Shadow looks like he's in heaven as he wanders through these stacks, prying into boxes. When Jazzy Jay takes the camera crew through his own record collection, it's staggering. There's thousands and thousands of them taking up an entire wall. "Not much gets by me in the world of hip-hop. I know it all and I never sleep," he says, and you have to believe him.
I could recite moments from the film to you one after another. They're that vivid for me, even now, almost a week later, and they're all gems. Each of them communicates some fresh aspect of the scene, or some fascinating quirk about one of these vinyl wizards. But I don't want to give away the film's great surprises and joys too early. Besides... I need to see it again.
When this plays at Sundance next month, I hope I'm there to see it. John Robie and I are currently considering a trip to Park City. If you're like the producers of SCRATCH and you have a kickass film you're taking with you next month, let us know about it here at AICN. I want to take advantage of this platform of ours to warn people to keep their eyes open for the good films I know are going to be there. Depending on how the next few weeks go, there's a good chance we'll be giving you some major coverage of this year's festival, one that promises to be packed with interesting pictures. Until then...