Love them or loathe them, it’s impossible to deny the impact Death Row Records has had on modern popular-culture. Not just in music either, as many of the artists made famous by the controversial record label have since become movie stars, businessmen and personalities beyond their work as musicians.
When it happened it was a huge cultural shift. A change in the way the world viewed the entire sub-genre of rap and hip hop, and of the culture of African Americans. It might not seem like much now, in an age where the latest popular artist only sticks around long enough for the next big thing to take their place, but the late eighties and early nineties was a very different place, and the guys from Death Row Records really altered the entertainment landscape, even if they didn’t realise that they were at the time.
They were subject to scrutiny from protest groups, politicians, religious groups and almost everyone and anyone in between, but they were also wholly unstoppable. Their output had captured an entire generations anger and angst and there was nothing anyone could do.
When it comes to documentaries detailing stories such as the one presented in Welcome to Death Row, they often sit in one of two camps. Either we get a series of clips coupled with some talking heads from those on the edges of the story filling in the gaps, or we get a narrator explaining everything in a cheesy American accent with images flashing across the screen with a loose connection to what is being said.
Welcome to Death Row sort of falls into both camps. There’s no narrator, but the talking heads often act as such. It’s most definitely comprehensive, meaning there’s a wealth of footage, from news reports, newspaper clippings, behind the scenes videos, phone calls, music videos and almost anything and everything in between to serve as a visual representation, while the talking heads give us our story through a series of segments that each have names designed to illicit intrigue.
The level of care that has gone into compiling this mass of different information and cutting it into a coherent story, especially when you consider the differing accounts of all those involved in the story and of those offering their time for the talking heads, is something that can’t really be ignored. This is perhaps the most in-depth overview of the story of the record label you’re ever likely to find.
But while there’s a lot to admire in the effort and time spent putting all this together and figuring out how to turn it into a linear and easy to follow “story”, it’s hardly reinventing the wheel in terms of how these things are presented.
The film itself often falls back the tropes one would expect from a straight-to-video television documentary, and while there’s nothing wrong with that in theory, it makes for frustrating viewing at several point, especially when the subject matter is so fascinating and unique that it continuously feels like there’s a better, more adventurous version of it just around the corner.
The fact that the film-makers were unable to acquire the rights to use Death Row Records’ music only further harms the feel of the film. Often there is a sense that a real electricity is being missed, especially when the people on screen are referencing these songs and tracks but the film is unable to provide an extract to help the audience understand just why it was such a big deal.
If you’re anything like me then you already know a lot of the songs already, and you’re at least aware of the controversy that surrounds the artists and the label, but there’s something somewhat anti-climactic about listening to someone tell us a song was so controversial it got banned from a performance, only to then swiftly move onto the next topic without hearing the song in question.
Having said that, it does make for an interesting and in many ways insightful watch. For all it’s flaws in execution, and for all it’s use of tropes and generic documentary styles, the subject matter really is incredibly fascinating, and that alone is enough to keep you watching.
If you have even a passing interest in the genre and the people that helped define it, stirring up controversy and changing the media and entertainment industry in the process, then there’s plenty to enjoy here. It might not be an earth-shattering, life changing documentary but then were you expecting it to be that anyway? What it is is a well told, if not a little uninspired, account of one of the most bizarre and surprising rise and fall tales of the modern era.
After the success of 2015’s Straight Outta Compton the book that spawned out of Welcome to Death Row has been shopped around Hollywood as a sort of sequel, in search of a studio interested in adapting the story for the big screen and there’s no denying that it would make a fascinating movie. But until the time comes, this documentary offers up a detailed look at that same story, and it’s an efficiently told and carefully collected version. You could do a lot worse.
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