Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The Janelle Monáe thriller Antebellum was supposed to hit theaters. In its absence, we’re looking back at films starring musicians.
Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind opens with clips of Mos Def playing Fats Waller in a homemade biopic. It’s a low-budget version of a movie Mos Def might well have made during the 2000s, when he augmented his rap career with a decade and change of steady film work. Def was no acting novice—he was a former child actor with stage experience—but he didn’t gravitate toward flashy or self-serious parts. Instead, he genre-hopped around a variety of projects, the best of which is arguably Be Kind Rewind.
Gondry’s film pairs Def with Jack Black; essentially, he accepts an invitation to be upstaged and then quietly holds his own. Def plays Mike, a clerk at a shabby video store in Passaic, New Jersey; Black is Jerry, the neighborhood kook who, in the film’s most Gondryesque turn, becomes magnetized and unwittingly erases the store’s meager stock of VHS tapes. Desperate to protect the store, Mike and Jerry hastily produce a knockoff of Ghostbusters to satisfy a persistent customer. As they work their way through the store’s catalog, these unauthorized camcorder remakes (“sweded” movies, in their nonsensical parlance) become a local sensation.
Watching Jack Black ham his way through Gondry-fied versions of 2001 or King Kong was the film’s marketing hook, but Def provides crucial grounding in the everyman role, balancing out his fellow actor-musician’s unflagging (and sometimes exhausting) showmanship with world-weary earnestness. His low-key performance helps to sell the sincerity of the sweded movies, as Mike and Jerry break familiar stories down to their rusty component parts: half-remembered images, mangled theme songs, hastily faked special effects, and clumsy imitations of basic film grammar. Be Kind Rewind itself sometimes feels nearly as ramshackle, allowing Black to natter, Def to mutter, and Gondry to haphazardly toss off plot points possibly reverse-engineered to suit his whims. Yet it has some bravura moments, too, like an elaborate single-take shot seamlessly blending the faking of five separate bootleg productions.
There are countless ways this movie could go wrong: It could overdose on cuteness, condescend to its lower-class characters with a faux-scrappy underdog story, or apply misguided nostalgia to a clunky technology that makes movies look worse. So it’s especially gratifying when Gondry steers the material toward a sensitive consideration of how we process our shared history through the beautiful artificiality of art, and the cultural journeys that can begin at even the crummiest video store, via the crummiest of formats. (Gondry doesn’t quite make the point explicitly, but aren’t “real” VHS tapes themselves clunky imitations of the movies they were meant to preserve?)
Art’s potential to unify or create a community is something Gondry explored before this film, via the concert doc Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (also featuring Def), and would return to again with The We And The I (which is basically Gondry producing a community project like the one at the end of Be Kind Rewind). All three films in his unofficial Community Arts trilogy are worthwhile, and Be Kind Rewind is somehow both the most fanciful and most melancholy of the bunch. It makes surprisingly moving use of a technology whose immediate replacement is now, years later, also threatened with obsolescence. Mos Def’s presence contributes to that bittersweet feeling because his movie career, too, was fleeting. In 2011, he changed his name to Yasiin Bey, and a few years later, stepped back from both music and acting. That’s a fitting postscript for a movie that’s largely about hustling your way into creativity even as time is running out.