If you’re a working musician who has residential roots to New York City and you happen to have some sort of fraught relationship with your family, the Tribeca Film Festival has a spot for you: Opening Night. Last year, the festival opened with the debut of Mistaken For Strangers, a documentary about the band The National, with a tight focus on the band’s lead singer and his doofus brother as they attempt to coexist on tour together. This year, the festival bowed with the premiere of Time Is Illmatic, another documentary centered on a working musician (in this case, rapper Nas) who has residential roots to the city (he grew up in Queens’ Queensbridge Houses) who happens to have some sort of fraught relationship with his family (though nothing quite so tense as the relationship at the center of last year’s premiere).
Time Is Illmatic is pegged to the twenty-year anniversary of Nas’ debut album, “Illmatic,” a hip-hop milestone that, as we are frequently reminded in the film, still resonates today. Nas tells us early on in the film that he sought to make “a perfect album” with “Illmatic,” and though it appears that he absolutely accomplished that, the majority of the film isn’t about actually making the album itself – it’s about making a way out of his existing life into a place where he could even dream of making such an album. Time Is Illmatic is primarily concerned with sharing Nas’ early life experiences (call that the “time” of the title) and it succeeds at that quite mightily, but when it comes to the “Illmatic” element, it’s lacking.
Despite growing up in the Queensbridge Houses – the projects, really – Nas doesn’t try to somehow oversell his street cred. Nas and his brother Jabari grew up in a loving home (their parents divorced when they were young, but the film makes it plain that the boys never felt responsible or maligned for it), filled with music, books, and the sense that they were being treated as equals by their parents. Nas and Jabari’s father, Olu Dara, was a jazz musician famous in his own right who influenced the boys and their love of music. Their mother instilled in them a love of hard work and a desire to succeed. Still, there were troubles in their lives, and when their father encouraged them to drop out of junior high, where they were feeling unfulfilled and unwanted, they did it.
What followed was Nas’ unlikely rise to the top (the journey was by no means cliché, no matter how the phrase “unlikely rise to the top” may sound) . The film makes the argument that a specific set of factors – Nas’ home life, his early love for music, a desire to succeed, and an even stronger desire to not fall into the criminality and bloodshed that surrounded him – helped turn him into a superstar, and Time Is Illmatic’s impressive set of interviews and archival footage (including plenty of looks at some of his earliest gigs) only strengthen that claim.
The film’s second act is peppered with a wealth of footage and interviews, with an amusing early trip into some of the rap battles that helped ignite a real passion for hip hop in Nas (turns out, the eighties were a heady time for location-based musician feuds). Time Is Illmatic also features appearances by a number of other members of hip hop royalty, many of whom influenced Nas in extremely essential ways (from other MCs to producers to other artists that he aspired to be like). The depth of information present in Time Is Illmatic is one of its best aspects, and director One9 and screenwriter Erik Parker manage to blend the majority of it together quite seamlessly.
But although the film seems to be leading up to a longer discussion on the influence Nas and “Illmatic” had on the industry and his craft, the film provides little insight into what actually happened after the record dropped. Instead, it seems to assume that everyone knows why and how the record and Nas’ work affected the industry, and the lack of insight (after so much of it!) is jarring and will inevitably distract neophyte Nas fans that were just getting to know the artist and his story. The film may end on a high note, but the off-key act that drives it dilutes much of its magic.
The Upside: The film’s first two acts are extremely well put together, the entire film blends together interviews and archival footage with ease, isn’t sentimental about the past.
The Downside: The film’s third act fails to tie things together in a satisfying manner, could be more accessible for non-fans, relies on existing knowledge of hip-hop history to truly impress and provide context.
On the Side: Nas’ full name is Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, as he is named partially after his father (who was actually born Charles Jones III).