The Great Hip Hop Hoax

I'm excited to get a bit into reviews for some of the films I saw at SXSW 2013. There's a lot to cover, so for the most part I'm going to keep things a bit shorter than I often do. Unless something really speaks to me - either positively or negatively. Given the length of what follows it seems I had more to say about The Great Hip Hop Hoax than I'd originally expected to.

The Great Hip Hop Hoax was one of those documentaries where the idea was far more interesting than the execution. The story is about the allegedly almost super famous rap duo of Silibil n' Brains who didn't quite make it while living a lie. The latter being that while presenting as California based rappers they were in fact from Scotland.

OMG! - Seriously, Rich - why the hell did you ruin it for us?!? 

Well, before you think that let me clarify. That secret is not just in every written synopsis of the film, but it's also made clear in the first few minutes of the picture. So ... imagine you know that going in, then the tension has got to be about how they found out ... right? Well no, that's not quite it. A big part of the problem is that there really wasn't any tension in the film. Without the what happens when they're caught hook it's actually the story you've probably seen a bunch of times before in music docs. A band starts to have some success, enjoys the high life (perhaps a bit too much) and then doesn't find the success they hoped for. And at the end of the picture at least one of the members is still chasing the dream of hitting it it big some years later while the other has moved on. The big difference here is the underwhelming level of drama ... as well as the fact that Silibil n' Brains aren't convincingly the second coming of the hip hop messiah regardless. In comparison, most other rock docs share the narrative arc, lack the pretending not to be Scottish hook, and more than make up for it via enjoyable music.

After the jump I'm going to let fly with some more details - including some that possibly might be considered spoilers. So if you want to stop now that's cool. Just leaving knowing that the greatest trick that The Great Hip Hop Hoax may have played is getting one to sit through the entire film, only to discover...
... that the hoax in question didn't seem to contribute to their downfall in any meaningful way. Yep, I guess I tricked you past the jump into spoiler territory. If you're willing to go down the rabbit hole a bit longer I'll ramble on more about the picture.

The filmmakers had lots of access to Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain and footage of their journey to become Silibil n' Brain. The story starts out with a couple of friends for life who loved to rap and (I'm told) had some talent for it. The pair are charming enough and easy to root for. The inclusion of (becoming standard) animated re-enactments of their early career is pretty engaging. After going to a music showcase and bombing as their Scottish selves they were down in the dumps. But a bit of re-imagining themselves as Americans in London along with a second performance caught the attention of music A&R scouts. Before they could say Californication the pair had representation and money pouring in. Or at least enough to attract women, booze and the life of musical up and comers.

One of the pair seemed to remained grounded with a girlfriend back home, the other being young, male and human took advantage of the rock star perks afforded him. One probably doesn't need to elaborate on those. Throughout this period their music industry masters had them record some material and began the public relation campaigns where they acted like goofballs on music videos and chat shows. Nobody knew they weren't from America, and the pair lived in great fear of anyone finding out. That last part about the constant paranoia comes up a lot. And I don't doubt it was real as they were living an American accented lie. Perhaps not realizing that the given how much of the music industry has been based on deceit that it's possible no one would really care. Most amusingly (but not well plumbed) was that almost all of their West Coast knowledge had been gleaned from movies and television shows.

Eventually their career is stalled and both are forced to face an existence without easy money, booze and women. I won't exactly say what the issue was. But I will say it had something to do with corporate restructuring and not to what I can tell with anyone discovering their big secret. And perhaps some of the partying, it wasn't easy to discern how big an impact that had.

When confronted with the lie their managers and record folks shrugged it off during onscreen interviews. Sure, it's possible they're now saying it's nothing but they might have lost it at the time and sued the pants off the pair. And of course I expect there's some truth in the Silibil n' Brains representation that no one would give them the time of day with a Scottish accent. But other than the tension felt by these likable guys pretending to be someone they're not it's unclear what the consequences of the fakery really was. Given this was the music industry where their handlers were likely working hard to screw Silibil n' Brains perhaps they'd consider it unsporting to have called them on pretending to be something they weren't if it was moving product.

In the end I felt like I'd watched a mildly interesting bit of music history, more appropriate for a short than a feature length treatment. The "hoax" was a bit disappointing, but not a total deal killer for me. Ultimately though, given what's come before the bar is pretty high for music industry documentaries. Against that (even leaving aside the accent suppression) The Great Hip Hop Hoax wasn't especially "great" and only to the participants a "hoax." I mean I grew up when we learned Milli Vanilli didn't actually sing their own song. So if the story of the band isn't fascinating, and they didn't change the musical landscape for the ages the shock value of these guy's misdirection isn't going to hook me.

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