DAN CHARNAS’ “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop”
√ Bob Recommended
It is usually wise for music journalists to focus on artists rather than businessman, but Dan Charnas reverses things in this massive, 645-page look at the businessmen (and women) who helped rap evolve from a New York street sound into an international cultural phenomena—and the result is remarkable. A former writer for The Source magazine as well as an executive in the music industry, Charnas writes about the East Coast wing of hip-hop with such dogged detail that you virtually find fascinating revelations on every page—many of them correcting long-standing music biz myths. Though the book chronicles such key steps in rap as Sugar Hill Records, MTV’s early rap shows and Roc-A-Fella Records, the primary thread is the interactions of Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin and Lyor Cohen. They were responsible for Def Jam Records, which was the seminal outfit in establishing rap as a viable commercial and critical force. In one sense, Charnas may have been better off focusing the book entirely on Def Jam because the attempt to cast a wider net and serve as the “history of the business of hip-hop” will leave many readers frustrated. That’s because the book devotes little time to the West Coast rap world of Interscope Records, which—through the music of such figures as Dr. Dre, Tupac, Eminem, Snoop Dogg and 50-Cent—was largely responsible for expanding rap to a massive, mainstream stage. Even without the Interscope story, “The Big Payback” is an invaluable book. But the omission makes it feel like an incomplete one. A possible Volume II?
The usually reliable Coen Brothers play it far too safe.
From the film noir gem “Blood Simple” to the comic brilliance of “Fargo,” the Coen Brothers have been wonderful storytellers who deliver works that are smart and risky enough to be hailed as both demanding and sophisticated. But almost everything here in this remake of the John Wayne movie of the late 1960s—from the endlessly broad humor to cartoonish the raw violence—feels so carefully calculated to win a mainstream audience’s approval that you feel betrayed. The western’s best scene is when newcomer Hailee Steinfield, as the smart and savvy 14-year-old heroine Mattie Ross, verbally duels a veteran horse trader and comes away with both the bully’s money and pride. But the main reason you’re going to hear so much praise about Steinfield is that the other leads are immensely disappointing. Matt Damon is miscast as a Texas Ranger, Jeff Bridges is hopelessly one dimensional in Wayne’s role of the grizzly, booze-soaked Rooster Cogburn and Josh Brolin is wasted as a killer on the run. Lots of laughter in the theater, I admit, but it felt too cheap for a Coen Brothers production.
So classy, so charming…so unfulfilling
After giving us one of the most exquisite animated films ever in “The Triplets of Belleville,” Sylvain Chomet takes a surprise step sideways this time out by basing his new animated film on a never filmed script by French actor-director Jacques Tati. But the melancholy story of an aging magician slowly losing his place in the world juxtaposed against a young woman suddenly finding her future feels simply too minimal. We are never allowed to get inside either the magician or the woman, which makes everything on the screen feel just out of reach. With “Triplets,” we felt part of the film. With “Illusionist,” we are just outsiders.
MADE IN DAGENHAM”
Nothing horribly wrong, but very slight.
There are some engaging touches in this story about some English female factory workers bonding together in the late-1960s to get equal pay with men—notably the acting of Sally Hawkins and the always reliable Bob Hoskins—but the script is so straight-forward that the movie feels too thin for the big screen. Despite the upbeat tale, there so little insight and surprise that you end up feeling let down.