Alias made me frustrated. Watching Michelle Latimer’s documentary provoked me in a way that pushed me to talk back to the screen – something I rarely do.
Alias focuses on a small handful of Toronto rappers trying to be heard and to please an audience with their music and lyrics. According to the synopsis, Latimer’s doc “digs deeper than the usual portrait of the rap world as glamour, guns and swagger.” I appreciate Latimer wanting to show an authentic reality of the underground rap world, but by not offering any answers or anything to say about the topic she wants to tackle, she fails to make the film any better than if it focused merely on shiny rims and gold chains.
Alias is one if these “fly-on-the-wall” approaches to the documentary genre and it doesn’t benefit the filmmaker or the subjects. It takes on a loose structure as we follow these rap artists around Toronto. The problem is they don’t have anything substantial to say or do in Latimer’s doc other than to remind the viewers that violence is a recurring theme and that the rap game isn’t all that it’s cracked out to be – even though they are passionate about their craft.
The film shows a lot of unfairness that a rapper faces when trying to be seen and heard. The first third of Alias demonstrates that even if you’re on a list to perform for an audience, you can be easily bumped or erased from the list if the main person keeping track of time (in this case, an organizer nicknamed Mr. Know-It-All ) lets the show go over the venue’s limit.
A collection of bummed out musicians complain that they’ve anticipated the night and that they’ve managed their time around this would-be performance, including one rapper calling in a babysitter to take care of their kid for the night. Mr. Know-It-All ends up spending more money on security than he expects, stating that he has to use his daughter’s OSAP to cover the costs.
I’m sitting in my seat, watching the doc, and wondering why these determined goal chasers are sticking to the same ole’ if there are so many possible cons? Some of the interviews explain that less opportunities arise in the more urban areas of Toronto, but with the expansion of the Internet as well as other venues around this very busy city, there are other options for these artists to take into consideration.
However, they stick faithfully to the “thug life” mentality even if they realize why thinking “outside the box” could benefit their careers. If this is a message Latimer wanted to display to an audience, I suppose she’s done it successfully, but it’s disheartening after the umpteenth “this is what happens when you live a thug life” is uttered.
Because of the stubbornness and the lack of energy on either side of the camera, these artists aren’t exactly interesting to watch either. Latimer appears to have not manipulated their image for the film and the featured rappers are comfortable with being honest either during their narration or in front of the camera. That said, the truth is belittled by non-stop tough, gangster machismos that suggest these artists are also putting on a front – as if they have to perform for Latimer as they do on stage or in homegrown music videos. For those who have seen Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, imagine James Franco’s Alien character without the irony or the satire.
With nothing to say or do, Alias uselessly sits there on the screen and waits for its duration to time out – that is, until the final few moments. Moviegoers have a final word with each featured artist as they tell us what they find so thrilling and satisfying about performing. The phoney bologna soft instrumental music that has played earlier during montages finds a place to fit as it matches the ease these musicians have as they rap. If the rest of the documentary followed in these footsteps, Michelle Latimer could’ve had something uplifting and inspirational on her hands.
Sadly, the credits suddenly roll as we’re being escorted out of the movie – being told that the documentary has gone over the venue’s limit and can’t perform the rest of its set.
Catch Alias at:
Friday, April 26 at 7:00 p.m. at The Royal Cinema
Sunday, April 28 at 1 p.m. at Scotiabank Theatre
Saturday, May 4 at 8:45 p.m. at Scotiabank Theatre
Visit the official Hot Docs webpage here!
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