The brainchild of L.A. producers Squeak E. Clean (Sam Spiegel, brother of Spike Jonze) and DJ Zegon, N.A.S.A. is a hip-hop group with influences from all over the world. Their name stands for "North America South America," representing the roots of the two producers, and to celebrate the release of their first album, The Spirit of Apollo, they taped the sessions that helped give birth to said album and released it under the same title. This hour-long peek behind-the-scenes is short but sweet, offering a light-hearted, exciting, first-hand look into the collaborative process of making the record, as well as showing off snippets of the beautiful animated music videos created for each song.
Work on the album began in 2004, five years before the finished disc would arrive in stores. Spiegel clearly lays out the shifting, bubbling nature of creativity, with each specific track and its guest stars forming over time. The spirit of collaboration and invention in the recording studio is actually infectious, with Spiegel himself serving as a great cheerleader for the whole process. He's got no qualms or ego about his awe, hearing what some of his fellow artists are contributing to his project, and his palpable glee at seeing his dreams realized makes the doc fun to watch. Spiegel and Zegon talk about their music influences and what led them to choose each contributing artist, and the documentary is edited in a way that helps show how those pieces were put together.
The range of guest stars on the album is pretty wild. Although he is not interviewed, sending his tracks in digitally, David Byrne guests on a couple of tracks. Tom Waits adds his unique vocals to another. The RZA drops by the studio to lay down some backing vocals for Barbie Hatch, who expresses her admiration for Spiegel's inspired thinking. Spiegel is at his most starstruck when funk legend George Clinton shows up to tell a few jokes and record, and he bends over backwards to meet Kanye West's creative demands, flying to Hawaii in the home stretch. Other artists featured in the doc include M.I.A., Santigold, Chuck D, and KRS-One, all of whom offer a few tidbits about why they were interested in working with N.A.S.A. on the album.
The behind-the-scenes footage is also intercut with footage from a whole gallery of 12 animated music videos, covering most of the album's 17 tracks. Although it'd be a little unfair to give Spiegel's doc too much credit for the gorgeous style and incredible artwork in these videos, he does provide some behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the videos, and the documentary is stylistically integrated with these videos with the use of animated credits and other little touches of animation laid in throughout the footage. Spiegel also opens with some fun fake talk show footage, in which he also plays the cheesy host. Although this 60-minute piece feels like it belongs packaged with the album itself in some sort of deluxe set, this is a great look at the collaborative process of making music, and a document of Spiegel's own boundless energy and creativity.
N.A.S.A.: The Spirit of Apollo has fantastic, eye-popping cover art depicting two astronauts, armed with a boombox, with a couple of rap stereotypes (money, women) in front of them, as well as a goose. From the style to the color scheme, this is a DVD cover that grabs the attention and feels like it fits with the film, and I'd be lying if I didn't say I pulled this disc from the screener pool based on the artwork. This DVD-R release comes in a standard cheap-o Amaray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
It seems like this documentary was just a little bonus, or side project, in comparison to the album. With that in mind, it's not really surprising that this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is pretty rough, with the distinct look of consumer-grade digital. The image quality is extremely soft and covered in artifacts and noise. Whites are sometimes burned out and sometimes well-balanced, and contrast varies as well. Aliasing is frequently visible. It looks poor, but no more than expected. I'm more distracted by the fact that a doc about an album being recorded is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, but the audio sounds fantastic, with the songs easily offering enough dynamic range and spread to fool one into thinking they're presented in full 5.1 surround sound. No subtitles or captions are provided, which is kind of frustrating on this kind of production, because there will always be audio that is less than optimal (at one point, the camera's reverb function is clearly on). Usually, art-style subtitles will cover the most garbled sections, but disc-based captions would still be nice.
I think there's probably an argument to be made that the full lineup of music videos is part of the feature presentation, or even that the documentary is the extra and the videos are the feature, the disc sets them up as bonus features. It probably goes without saying that each and every one of them is absolutely worth checking out -- hell, they might be worth the price of the disc alone.
Two other short extras are included: a series of animation tests (2:05), which are very close to the finished animations, and a reel of deleted scenes (8:46), which is actually just a single extended scene, featuring the full rant that appears in the end credits of the documentary.
Even if you're not aware of N.A.S.A., this gem of a documentary should provide all the information you need to know. I can't guarantee you'll like the music (I did), but the doc itself is a great peek into the process of cutting an album, and into the things that drive Spiegel as an artist. Highly recommended.