The distinction between fawning infomercial and documentary, particularly when the subject is either an artist or important subcultural figure, is one that increasingly few documentarians seem able to draw. Too many contemporary nonfiction filmmakers seem to think their subjects must be presented in as sanitized and inoffensive a manner as possible. One of the things that made, say, Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry such potent viewing was Klayman’s unwavering juxtaposition of her subject’s noble artistic and political causes with his often ignoble treatment of his wife and family. The full spectrum of his being was presented and the film was better for it.
In Peanut Butter Wolf, the founder and pulse of indie record label Stones Throw, director Jeff Broadway does not have as outsized or darkly complex a subject as Klayman had. By all accounts, Wolf — government name: Chris Manak — is a genuinely nice guy. Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records never lets you forget that. It starts off gushing about him and ends the same way, with Questlove, Common, Kanye, Mike D., and Talib Kweli singing his praises while tracing the idiosyncratic nature of the label (and the culture within it) to Wolf’s own personality. Hardcore fans of Stones Throw’s freewheeling aesthetic might not much care that there’s little critical analysis in play as the film takes viewers from Wolf’s childhood to the present. (One of the few times such analysis crops up, it’s from Questlove, who observes that “Small movements make for a better culture,” an idea that has the ring of truth — I wish he’d been allowed to expand on it.) What makes the film worth checking out for any hip-hop fan, though, is the generous footage (home movies; studio and performance footage) of the label’s trio of geniuses: Madlib, Flying Lotus, and the late J Dilla.
Watching studio footage of these three men, none of whom are (or were) in the music game for riches or celebrity, is to witness definitions and practices of art that are all but obsolete now — and long have been in hip-hop. The viewer witnesses the pure joy of creating, and the genuine love the men exhibit in collaboration. For them, the work isn’t (and wasn’t) about branding or creating a track that will hopefully be licensed for big bucks, but seeing how far they could go with their gifts.
The film is broken into multiple chapters that outline Wolf’s personal story, the evolution of the label, and where the personal and professional converge. Its most affecting moment is the recounting of the murder of Wolf’s childhood best friend and first professional collaborator, Charizma, a tragedy whose effects clearly still linger. Most odd is the latter section on Wolf’s recent alter-ego, Folerio (Wolf sporting a cheap black wig, in the persona of an immigrant musician), that comes off as a midlife crisis packaged as performance art; it is amusing watching various acquaintances choose their words carefully while discussing it.
The film doesn’t use music or cultural critics to historicize or contextualize Stones Throw and explain why, as a label largely built on hip-hop, (though it is now much more expansive in its offerings), it’s so different from past small but important (and often controversial) hip-hop labels like Rawkus, Ruthless, or Tommy Boy. The lack of a critical framework means that some of the most intriguing notions the interviewees put forth are never explored. For example, Madlib discusses becoming bored with hip-hop as he matured as an artist, so he moved on to making jazz. Likewise, Wolf’s own boredom with hip-hop has led him to not only move away from it himself, but to sign artists working in other genres (many of his non-rap acts could be described as “cloying white hipster fare.”) That stirs up a question: Is hip-hop a space too limited to allow artists to mature within it? Chuck D. might beg to differ. (The film’s title, of course, is a play on the classic Public Enemy track, “My Uzi Weighs a Ton.”)
Similarly, the total erasure of past Stones Throw artists Georgia Anne Muldrow and Dudley Perkins is curious, given that they are some of the most talented musicians ever signed to the label. That lacuna is made more intriguing when the film notes that Aloe Blacc (who left the label in 2011) declined to be interviewed, all raising the idea that maybe Stones Throw isn’t quite a music Camelot. Exploring that wouldn’t in any way diminish the importance of the label or Wolf, but would have made the film seem less like a commercial for both.