You are about to witness the power of street knowledge. Oops! Better make that "common knowledge." Showing the limitless insight of an HBO special from 1992, the 70-minute documentary Five Sides of a Coin samples the flavor of hip-hop culture, cataloging its most important elements while chronicling its rise to indomitability. And once in a great while, filmmaker Paul Kell stumbles across a detail you haven't seen recounted one billion times before ... from the pages of The Source to Teen People. If you find more than 10 of the historical nuggets imparted here to be genuine revelations, then you mad white, dogg.
A multitude of players and personages are consulted, and what do they come up with? Rap is the urban CNN. Hip-hop started in New York and went on to sweep the world. Some folks don't like it, but they're just haters, because MCs and DJs are here to stay. Oh, and the movement likewise has something to do with breakin', graffiti art and beat-boxing. You don't say.
Kell doesn't stay on any of these subjects long enough to score more than a tasty, semi-obscure factoid or two from each. Yet though every lesson in history, cultural anthropology and/or musicology is delivered at 180 mph, the movie's partisanship shines through -- due not only to its reverent tone (a hip-hop-as-religion segment is particularly overblown), but in terms of focus. Coming down squarely on the East Coast side of the great geographical rift, the movie dismisses the entire phenomenon of California rap as a counterproductive gangsta act that needs to be gotten over so the genre's original positive vibes can resurface.
The blatant skew is at odds with the film's pretensions to an all-encompassing scope. Early on, we're introduced to a couple of white chicks who admit they're not into the scene, and sax man John Lurie reveals that he stopped paying attention to rap before it reached its second generation. Think any of them are consulted later to amplify their views? Nah. They're just set up as straw men for Kell to knock down with fawning received testimonials. The proceedings only start to resemble actual journalism near the very end, when the director sets up a crosscut debate between black anti-rap crusader C. Delores Tucker and some of the music's more eloquent proponents.
It's always nice to see KRS-One get some play, and his appearance cues a few minutes of genuinely nuanced discussion about the role of education and economics in hip-hop. But then we're back to the typical shallow boosterism and half-formed arguments. Check out this self-contradictory gem from Afrika Bam-baataa, on the state of our fragile globe, no less: "Racism is one of the No. 1 issues, as well as diseases and famine and hunger."
Yep, it's all about the No. 1s.
(Opens Friday, July 30, at D.MAC, the Downtown Media Arts Center)