Some call it stealing. Others call it sampling. Somewhere in the gray area between a literal interpretation of copyright law and the progressive need to serve available technology lies Girl Talk. Also known as Gregg Michael Gillis, biomedical engineer and full time rebel DJ, the infamous musician with a worldwide fanbase has made his name off of utilizing the media of the past to make what he hears as the sounds of the future - and he's not alone. Bands like Negativland and artists like Danger Mouse have long used this mash-up style of sound collage to add emphasis to their own aural ideas. But Gillis is different. He believes in utilizing only the work of others to create his own art. Now, he's not the first person to propose this idea. The Residents, San Francisco's amiable avant gardeners, took the entire Beatles catalog and created the seminal surrealism known as "Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life". Today, teenagers with too much time on their hands can take the Fab Four's "Paperback Writer", meld it with the Monkees' "I'm A Believer", and call it an accomplishment. For filmmaker Brett Gaylor, this is not a question of legality. In his stunning documentary Rip!: A Remix Manifesto, he sees it as a matter of cultural life or death - and he may be right.
Using Girl Talk as the exception that proves the rule, Rip!: A Remix Manifesto attempts to legitimize the fine art of sampling for a generation raised on anti-Napster sentiment and regular RIAA lawsuits. Part call to arms, part look at the faces behind the more notorious names, Gaylor gives us input from law professor turned advocate Lawrence Lessig, as well as commentary by other known players in the piracy debate, including The Mouse Liberation Front and Brazilian pop star (and former government cabinet member) Gilberto Gil. With stock and concert footage, interviews and interjections, Gaylor creates his own cinematic patchwork, a hodgepodge of points that often overlook the bigger picture issues at play. Taking Girl Talk "to the masses", so to speak, our filmmaker hopes to spark a debate which sees other mediums treated like literature - capable of being both its own unique element and yet also allowed to foster (and in some cases, directly fuel) reuse and reassembly as something completely brand new. To this end, he proposes the following "manifesto", which functions as a framework for the film:
1. Culture always builds on the past.
2. The past always tries to control the future.
3. Our future is becoming less free.
4. To build free societies you must limit the control of the past.
There is an aspect of Rip! A Remix Manifesto that is so supremely aggravating, so blinkered in its own belief in self that it stands in sharp contrast to what is, ultimately, a fairly wonderful documentary. All throughout the opening bombardment, as Gillis gives way to Marybeth Peters of the US Registry of Copyrights, as Metallica gets hammered (again) and P2P is explained in cutsey graphics detail, the ever-present 800 lb gorilla is the room is simply stumble over and ignored. The set-up comes from Gillis' own mouth - he wants to be able to use the music created before to form the basis of his own moneymaking career. While employed as a biomedical engineer during the making of this documentary (he has since left his job to actively pursue music), Gillis gives away Rip! 's biggest logic gap - how will HE make money if there is no material left to pilfer. Put another way, if what he and Gaylor and numerous others are advocating - that is, the free use of any item in the public domain (and within said statement, an inevitable change in the law to increase the size and access to same) who will pursue the art Gillis will utilize? Sure, there is some 100 years of recorded sound to glean from now. In a post-Rip! world however, one can easily envision a "chilling effect" on future entertainment enterprises. After all, would you release an album of your own songs knowing you only had a limited time you could make money off of it before the rest of techno-nation could take it and profit from it ad infinitum?
Of course, it's not as simple as that, and perhaps that's why Gaylor chooses to simply overlook it. In his mind, he has much more significant fish to fry. The entire history of copyright, the recent law change (expanding the grant from death plus 17 years to 70!) and the justification for using the art of before for the attempted expression of today are give a good going over. We also learn about the highway robbery like licensing fees the major conglomerates charge to have songs featured in any film. Fair use is discussed (and then dismissed) while Gillis is given a chance to literally strut his stuff. A sequence explaining how he makes his massive mixes is gob-smacking in its creativity, while his live shows crackle with the kind of festive youth energy that makes you long for your days in college or graduate school. When it stays within its own particulars, when it keeps away from the adversarial elements of the real world, Rip! is wholly righteous. It's not just a movie manifesto. It's a Bible for the MP3 and BitTorrent generation. While we love what The Mouse Liberation Front has done to Disney, and love the Negativland slap in the face of corporate commerciality, this is about file sharing, album downloads, and the ridiculous legal proceedings that have turned enforcement into a farce.
And yet Gaylor gets part of it wrong. Not all art is altruistic. The Beatles did not record their albums to have Jay-Z rap over them, no matter how ingenious - and ultimately brilliant - the Grey Album was. They should have some control over their output, and granted, not the dictatorial Nazi like stranglehold that exists now. But to toss it all aside, to say that technology trumps the intellectual input of the source just stinks. It doesn't destroy Rip! as a work of docu-tainment excellence. But when you are trying to debate an issue, completely ignoring a potentially valid point makes you look arrogant. Gaylor honestly believes in his four part diatribe on taking society forward. And when viewed through the lens of Girl Talk, or any number of similarly styled musicians, it seems almost ludicrous to argue otherwise. But there is a reason copyright exists - and there is a reason that groups like Metallica act like jerks to protect their property. In such fuzzy, ill-defined areas, a movie like Rip! can cast some significant light. It can also muddy the waters so that few outside of those actually invested in the problem will find a friendly ear - or a villain ready to pop their always expanding individual balloon.
Rip! A Remix Manifesto has an interesting release history. After it was created, director Gaylor put the footage up on a website to have others "mash-up" the movie itself. Some of that work is represented on this DVD, and it has to be said that you can't distinguish the amateur's from the professional's ingenious reverse engineering. The 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean, colorful, loaded with detail, and free from any flaws that might come from the use of multiple stocks (film, digital, video, etc.). Even the older material looks brand new. Distributor Disinformation should be proud of how this transfer turned out.
On the sound side, Girl Talk's amazing music gets the 5.1 channel treatment with a Dolby Digital mix that's solid in both immersion and simple sonic recreation. The dialogue and narration are easy to understand and the overall aural approach is polished and professional
While it would have been nice to hear Gaylor comment on his film, the entire project is really nothing more than an alternative narrative, so we don't miss said bonus. The rest of the added content includes an hour long seminar with attorney Lessig, a SXSW to Playgirl featurette on Gillis, as well as four other featurettes that focus on legal issues ("Lawyer's Reaction to the Film") and a Congressman who supports Girl Talk. There are also seven additional "mash-ups" which offer both cinematic and musical variations on the burgeoning artform. Including "Steamboat Mickey", Girl Talk "Rotoscoped" and Olio's "Remix Culture" video, there is some amazing stuff here. In conjunction with the website and the film itself, Rip! becomes a rich, inviting experience.
This critic is of two minds about this movie - and he will automatically discount one on the grounds of personal bias. The whole issue of copyright is more complex than Gaylor makes it, and therefore, rubs this law school graduate the completely wrong way. However, we are not here to discuss precedent and case law. Instead, we are here to discuss film, and as an example of a nu-world work, of a effort trying to explain the 23rd century to 21st era minds, Rip!; A Remix Manifesto is a masterwork. It easily deserves a Highly Recommended rating, and if it had addressed the legitimate concerns of those being sampled, it would be a clear Collector's Edition entry. There will be many who feel that any freedom should be exercised without any interference or imposition. Sadly, the United States (and most democracies) are not founded on unfettered liberty. Gillis and his Girl Talk persona should feel entitled to make the musical collages that help redefine and reshape the sound of music. They should also be prepared to pay a (reasonable) price in the process. Sadly, that's missing from this manifesto.