New York, 1986: a city of big dreams and equally big problems. Like New York itself, hip-hop music encompassed both of these human conditions. But hip-hop and its cultural birthplace shared other important characteristics, too: the desire to always be original, a hustle-to-survive ambition, and – if the stars aligned – the ability to come out on top, no matter what the odds.
I received a screener copy of this and watched it over the weekend; it's about an hour long, and fast-paced, and I'd say not meant to be received as an all-encompassing history of hip-hop. But serves as a time capsule and the story behind its making deserves a documentary of its own, based on what I read.
It was made in 1985, so it covers pivotal moments and hip-hop luminaries of the time starting with Grand Master Flash, up to L.L. Cool J, who'd only just then recently released his first album, the acclaimed boom-box fave Radio.
Shot over the course of 6 days, with a 4-man Dutch crew (including its host and director Bram Van Splunteren, who was commissioned by the Dutch TV station he worked for at the time to make 6 music-based documentaries, and this was one of them), there’s something humorous about the simplistic, and even naive way in which the material is presented.
The title alone speaks to that - Big Fun In The Big Town. I'd say that the fact that the filmmakers weren't local to the scene which they flew across the Atlantic to document is definitely obvious (not only because of the difference in skin color), and gives the film an innocence about it.
Dutch Journalist and rap fanatic Van Splunteren spent one intense week in NYC in 1986, armed with five things: a camera crew, a map, a deep respect for hip-hop as an artform, a list of phone numbers, and a burning desire to get to the bottom of what this still-growing culture was all about. By the time he left, he had the answers he needed, along with a treasure trove of golden video footage. Tragically, these images never returned from Europe, languishing in obscurity for more than a quarter-century. Until last year when the film was released.
It's definitely what you’d call a no-frills documentary, which is actually a very good thing. I’d even use words like pure; the camera (nor the filmmakers) express any opinions whatsoever. The camera just documents, and the subjects are as they really are, comfortable in their own domains – neighborhoods, homes – with their families, friends. No pretentions. And so you get the information raw, including lots of wonderful upfront footage like Roxanne Shanté and Biz Markie performing live on stage in the mid-1980s, to a live, excited crowd.
Those scenes, all shot in what looks like a worn and fading 16mm film, are a joy to watch. Like I said, a time capsule, even though I wasn't there.
But all you hip-hop heads already somewhat familiar with the history likely won't learn much from this; although it wasn't made for you folks specifically. The main objective was to give audiences back in Holland (where the filmmakers are from) in 1986, an authentic view of hip-hop; and, once you put it in that context, I think it succeeds.
However, even if you are intimately familiar with the subject matter, I also think you'll get a kick out of the footage - like the aforementioned performance footage, as well as a then 17-year-old LL Cool J, still living at home with his grandmother, as they stroll through his neighborhood, while LL's braggadocio comes through in his words.
Plus, watch a younger, balding Russell Simmons be interviewed inside Def Jam Records’ offices, Run-DMC recording, freestyling, and adjusting to their new-found fame, Grandmaster Flash reprising his famed kitchen DJ set from Wild Style, MC Shan live on-stage in the Bronx, Doug E Fresh beatboxing and philosophizing on the street in Harlem, a young Schoolly D live and backstage at the famed Latin Quarter club, Suliaman El Hadi of hip-hop progenitors the Last Poets, spouting off about younger hip-hop artists, and much more, all crammed into this relatively short documentary.
After watching Ice-T's The Art Of Rap at Sundance earlier this year, I'll say that I think this is probably more what he was (or should have been) going for - just more comprehensive, and with a lot more history. It shows hip-hop from just about every angle, and approaches its subjects with a journalistic integrity and respect not frequently given to the artform and culture.
Commercially available for the first time ever after more than 25 years, Big Fun In The Big Town, directed by Dutch filmmaker, journalist Bram Van Splunteren.
It's on DVD, so
Watch a 4-minute preview trailer follows below: