Toward the end of Super 8 Stories, Emir Kusturica’s profile of the Balkan gypsy-punk band No Smoking, the vocalist sings, “Video killed the rock and roll.” Staring wide-eyed into the camera, looking a touch like Charles Addams’s Gomez, he gleefully draws out the first word—”wee-di-oh”—and ends the sentence with a Nina Hagen-esque growl. Appropriately, this hat-tip to the Buggles happens in the course of a No Smoking video, and it raises the question of how a modern musical (as the Walter Reade’s series phrases it) can escape music video’s Faustian bargain, in which directors obtain a relatively open playing field of experimentation, but in return, become mere illustrators for a soundtrack.
Typically, of course, directors answer this conundrum by flipping around some generic visual flash, then signing a paycheck. The global-grooving films on view here, however, represent bids to merge movies with music in ways both cinematically savvy and aurally engaging. Kusturica’s case is a mixed success. Like pornography, skateboard tapes, and disaster-driven blockbusters, music documentaries rarely escape a conventional spectacle-filler-spectacle structure; in this regard, Super 8 Stories is unexceptional. Shot on tour, the film sandwiches grainy black-and-white interviews with each member between standardized stadium-shot concert footage. The troupe’s compelling story—Yugoslavian gadabouts who emerged as subversive TV-comedy cutups under Tito, then continued to perform through the war—receives scattered attention. Given that Kusturica plays guitar for the group (who provided tunes for his Black Cat, White Cat), one wonders what restrained him. As a result, this movie, as they say, is for the fans.
Similar niche-market hurdles arise elsewhere. Those uninterested in hip-hop, Brit rock, or Latin jazz, for instance, should avoid Scratch, Radiohead: Meeting People Is Easy, and Calle 54, respectively. Nevertheless, each searches for a form to match its subject. In Scratch, a comprehensive history of hip-hop DJ’ing, director Doug Pray energetically cuts celluloid to mimic Mixmaster Mike and Q-Bert’s endearingly nerdy fascination with the manual re-editing of old-school vinyl. Yes, mad nerdy: The most stunning DJ sets are shot at turntablist conventions, akin to those of role-playing gamers and comic-book collectors. Keeping it less real, Grant Gee’s Radiohead concert doc plays like a fashion-addled VH1 interstitial drawn out to feature length, complete with a bad-faith Behind the Music moral. It poses its stars as sad-sack rockers—beleaguered by magazine shoots and on-air promos—for whom success has brought scant joy. A different kind of cool prevails in Calle 54, which employs painfully trite Bravo-style lensing in a botched attempt at cultural overcompensation. The contrived studio setups all but suffocate the music’s own spontaneity and showmanship; only Tito Puente escapes unharmed.
Mahmoud Zemmouri’s 100% Arabica, a low-budget narrative set in the graffiti-rich Muslim slums of France, crosses cultures with a louder clash. In the film, a hedonist local fusion of rap with North African rai ticks off a corrupt imam, who declares an anti-funk jihad worthy of Footloose. As in 1982’s Wild Style (hip-hop’s ur-movie, sampled in Scratch), real-life rai musicians Cheb Mami and Cheb Khaled play members of street-party band Rap Oriental. The tone is entertainingly light, but its resonance is heavy. When Zemmouri released the film in 1997, the Young Muslim League of Lyon issued a fatwa against him and actor Khaled, following other religious leaders who served death warrants against rai artists. It’s a grim reminder of how far the world is from hip-hop’s ideal of one nation under a groove.