Friday, December 6, 2002

"Pleasure and Pain" looks into the life of musician Ben Harper.

2 music documentaries
worth seeing

"Pleasure and Pain" and "Breath Control: History of the Human Beat Box"

Part of the Cinema Paradise 2002 festival at Wallace Art House at Restaurant Row

"Pleasure" plays at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow and 10 p.m. Wednesday, and "Breath" screens at 2 p.m. Tuesday

By Gary C.W. Chun

There are two music documentaries screening during the Cinema Paradise 2002 festival that music lovers should make an effort to check out. One is an intimate look at Ben Harper, one of today's more charismatic musicians, and the other is an entertaining low-budget video at a crucial, if overlooked, element of hip-hop.

The latter, "Breath Control: History of the Human Beat Box," documents some "ancient" history. As a "cheaper" alternative to drum machines, there were human "beat boxers" who gave rappers their rhythmic backbeat with just their voice. But, oh, what voices! Director Joey Garfield liberally mixes interviews, mind-boggling live performances, pivotal archival footage and a bit of science to document the rise, fall and rise again of the human beat box.

It all started in New York's West Bronx parks where rap and hip-hop were born in the mid-'80s, along with graffiti and break dancing. We meet and hear the pioneers of beat boxing -- the late Darren "Buff" Robinson of the Fat Boys, whose powerful beats could blow out the woofers in a club's sound system, and Doug E. Fresh, who's seminal "La-Di-Da-Di" featured his quick, trademark clicks.

That visceral connection to hip-hop, however, got lost when technology took over in the early '90s, leaving the pioneers and other monster talents like Emanon, the always entertaining Biz Markie and Stetsasonic's Wise cruelly forgotten.

But "Breath Control" also documents the revival of human beat boxing, with such self-appointed protectors of the music as Baba, who mixes didgeridoo and percussion with his mouth music; Click the Supah Latin; Radioactive from Michael Franti's Spearhead; Scratch and the phenomenal Rahzel, both of the Roots.

(One of the musical highlights in my life was listening to Rahzel during his solo spot at the last Roots show here in Hawaii. The self-proclaimed "Protector of Noyze" has taken human beat boxing to a lofty level, inspired by kung fu movies, Bobby McFerrin and comic impersonator Michael Winslow.)

THE TITLE OF the Ben Harper documentary, "Pleasure and Pain," comes from the first song the roots rocker ever wrote, and while the pain is implied through the absence of a caring, if sometimes abusive and alcoholic father, there's an abundance of pleasure in both his music and viewing this film made by renowned photographer Danny Clinch and his co-director/editor Sam Lee.

"Pleasure and Pain" begins and ends on the road, as Harper and his band, the Innocent Criminals, embark on an 18-month tour that ends triumphantly in Paris before 20,000 appreciative fans.

Clinch mixes up his visual formats, freely going between film and video, in much the same spirit as Harper's music seamlessly fuses folk, blues, funk and rock, drawing from the inspiring triumvirate of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix.

The band and crew's life on the road is shown, and everyone concerned is there for the music. There are no angry ego clashes and no sex, drug or alcohol abuse. In fact, before every performance, a prayer circle is made to give thanks and ask for spiritual strength.

The most moving part of the film is what happens in the middle, as we come to know about Harper's mixed-race parentage and his upbringing in his grandparents' music shop in Claremont, Calif. It's obvious he got his gentle soul and intense love of music from his mom and maternal grandparents. An especially poignant moment comes when he and his folk musician mother rehearse and play Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" for the first time.

Seeing and hearing Harper in this light made his music even more significant for me, and watching "Pleasure and Pain" makes one realize that his best is yet to come.

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