Hard to Tell, by Aaron Pinkston
If you took a look at my iTunes playlist in college (presumably using that program that allowed you to “borrow” music from people in my dorm‘s network), you wouldn’t find a lot of hip hop or rap — and what was there was more like the Beastie Boys than Notorios B.I.G. This is to say I don’t know a whole lot about Nas or his work, despite him being noted as one of the greatest and more influential rap stars of all time. For those like me, the new documentary from Tribeca Film, Nas: Time Is Illmatic, is a decent primer on the man and his landmark debut album.
Partly because of its brief length (only 74 minutes), Nas: Time Is Illmatic feels like a very well produced behind-the-scenes doc you’d find on music television. Its candid discussions with Nas about his past and music also feel like Jonathan Demme’s profiles of Neil Young, though without the heavy performance pieces. Instead, the film uses shorter segments of archived performance of a particular song with cut-in commentary on its influences and backstory. Most of this conversation covers his relationship with his family and growing up on the streets of New York during the drug culture of the 1980s.
First-time filmmaker One9 directs and edits the film slickly, with a lot of archival footage of New York and Nas’s youth. The performance footage he uses is beautifully grainy, like we’re seeing underground footage never before seen. The talking-head nature is hidden by staging the interviews in well-lit and shot environments. One9 brings out a great variety of subjects to interview, from music producers even the most informed haven’t heard of to popular artists like Pharrell and Q-Tip. Especially for a first time director, there is a proper amount of reverence — you can tell One9 is a fan of Nas, but no ego gets in the way.
Even in its brevity, the film doesn’t spend a lot of time specifically on the album it idolizes, particularly in its first half. Perhaps an intensive look at the music on Illmatic isn’t the film’s major aim, but it feels like a lost opportunity. By the end of the film, I certainly had more appreciation for Nas as a person and enjoyed seeing and hearing his major influences, but I didn’t get as much appreciation for Nas as an artist. Perhaps the bigger issue is the way the film structures around the music. It takes about 40 minutes before an extended rhyme is heard (with a nice touch of playing it a cappella and with subtitles to give the fullest effect). Once the film is fully focused on the music above all else, it doesn’t give context around the album. Basically, I heard the music from Illmatic, but don’t feel like I really experienced the album.
Hardcore fans may not have this same problem, but for the uninitiated, initially spending more time hearing others speak about the record’s greatness just isn’t as effective as hearing the music for oneself in order to better understand why the work is great. In any case, with the short runtime, Nas: Time Is Illmatic could certainly be beefed up a little with more performance footage and music from his discography.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic, a look at the influential album twenty years later, doesn’t feel like the complete account that some may want, but it is a sharp and entertainment profile of an important artist. Music profile documentaries have been in style, particularly over the last few years, and while this doesn’t really stand out in the crowd, it is a welcomed entry.