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Hip-hop documentaries come out all the time and are filled with cliched platitudes about coming up the hard way, making a dollar out of fifteen cents, and stuff like that. But hip-hop is really a business more than anything else these days, with bling-bling replacing stock options as an entrepreneurial goal. It's a business, however, that has been infiltrated by a wide variety of people from every conceivable economic and social background. Maxie Collier's documentary Paper Chasers seeks to look at the industry at every level, but focusing on the steps that eager young entrepreneurs-in-training take to make it big. In the process, the filmmaker makes his own behind-the-scenes film and a personal statement on his own dreams as well. (Full disclosure: In 1997 I was an assistant director on Collier's first feature film Hacks as well as Detention, an earlier film that he produced. I had no involvement with Paper Chasers.)Collier's approach to the film is to get down in the trenches and document everything, from his attempts to get the film financed, the personal dramas among his crew, and his difficulties securing high-profile interviews with successful producers and executives. Things get especially heated since the production is based in an RV as it travels through the country hitting hip-hop hot-spots like Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington DC and New York. It seems from the passage of time and the people he interviews that the production cycle on Paper Chasers was very long; The bulk of the production seems to date from 2001 and earlier. It's interesting to see the up-and-comers in the film that went nowhere compared to those who did make it.
The most obvious example comes during Collier's visit to Atlanta where a hip-hop hairstylist (Collier approaches more than just the music side of hip-hop culture) directs him to local radio host Chris "Lova Lova" Bridges. He meets up with the rapper and the rest of his Disturbing Tha Peace crew to get a sense of how they're using their locally produced tapes and CDs to try to get a major deal. What Collier couldn't have really known is that within a couple of years Bridges, under the name Ludacris, would become a major star. Paper Chasers catches up with Bridges a couple more times as his star rises. The affection the rapper has for Collier and his production unit is obvious; In an industry full of sycophants it's clear that he remembers the attention they gave him when he was unknown. It's also interesting to see how his attitude changes with his increasing notoriety. He becomes more aware of the hassles of an industry that he so badly wants to infiltrate. At the same time, a member of his crew who had earlier talked about thoughts of suicide now revels in his success. It's the drama of hip-hop played out in real time.
In addition to the hairstylist, Collier also spends a good deal of time with other non-musical members of hip-hop culture. He interviews the founders of FUBU and other clothing lines who have been picked up as hip-hop brand names. He visits the offices of Pen and Pixel Designs, creators of all the vomitously ugly Master P record covers, whose overstuffed artwork has defined the look of hip-hop, for better or worse. Collier knows that hip-hop is a culture and his documentary is smart enough to approach it from multiple angles.
That's not to say that it's perfect. There are plenty of redundent interviews. And the idea of trying to "make it" is not necessarily noble or original (despite what the hype over Hustle and Flow might suggest.) But Collier doesn't paint a rosy picture of the ease of success or of the quality of people trying. In Houston he profiles a very popular local rapper called The South Park Mexican (yeah, I don't get it either) who seems to be on the verge of blowing up big time. After his interview, however, Collier inserts a text screen informing us that the SPM is currently locked up for sexual assault. Oh well!
Similarly, he lands one of his more high-profile sit downs with Rockafella honcho Damon Dash, who has had a lot of success in music, clothing and film production. But Dash is a dull, thuggish interview, who only shows any enthusiasm when he storms to the door and tells people outside his office to shut up. Collier doesn't have the clout to secure interviews with moguls like Russell Simmons and Sean Combs, but knows enough about their careers to make his points regardless.
Ultimately, Paper Chasers is as much about chasing down the story as it is about the story itself, and that, in all its rambling formlessness, is what makes the film stand out. I feel fairly sure that it's the only hip-hop documentary that features the filmmaker talking with his landlord about being late on the rent. As crew member Anthony says at one point "We've been driving all day, all grubby, stinky, smelly, unattractive. And yet there's something ruggedly manly about it." The film is definitely rough around the edges, but there are moments that poke through the artifice of filmmaking and hip-hop careerism that tell the truth.
The video is a mix of full-frame and non-anamorphic widescreen and doesn't look great. Much of the footage comes from consumer-grade video equipment and was obviously shot on the cheap. Some of the sit-down interviews were obviously lit with care, but for the most part it's a rough looking video.
The Dolby Digital stereo audio is similarly rough. Some voices are quiet and hard to make out while others are loud and clear. It's surely due to the nature of the production, with the roving crew moving fast on their feet and not always with the best equipment.
There is a nice collection of special features on the disc. A 40 minute sequence of extended and bonus interviews features longer cuts of some of the interviews from the film as well as some that didn't make the final cut. The disc also includes a selection of freestyle raps from some of the film's subjects including Steph Lova of radio station Hot 97 and Ludacris and 4-ize standing on an Atlanta street corner. A sequence called "How to start your own business" culls about twenty-five minutes from the production material that shows the interview subjects giving their best advice to upstarts looking for a leg up.
The main feature is also viewable with a branching feature that puts a little dollar sign in the corner whenever there is additional material relating to the topic. Viewers can then jump directly to that supplemental material and return to the feature where they left off. This is another way to access the special features and it can be useful in expanding the ideas in the feature.
Paper Chasers can be disjointed at times, with the guerilla style of the production leaving the filmmakers lacking access in many of their stops. But at the same time their street-eye view leads them to some interesting stories along the way. Collier takes a sort of Ross McElwee / Morgan Spurlock approach to the film, putting himself in front of the camera and working his way through many of the same struggles that the people in the story go through: Working with a team he can trust, raising money, starting a business with nothing. It's a scruffy tale but it's honest.