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Alias | Hot Docs 2013 Review

Latimer Drops Beat On Toronto’s Rap Scene

Taking it’s name from one of the four Toronto street rappers it peeks into the lives of, Michelle Latimer’s Alias examines the cyclic struggles of urban hip-hoppers with ethereal introspection. Contrasting their ghetto reared images with an aural ambiance that strips away the egotistical facade pervading rap culture, Latimer’s debut grounds down to the core of their innate need to perform by slowing down the on-stage action and replacing the heavy beats and lyrical content with the humming of atonal atmospherics. They may lead hard knock lives, but these are the ephemeral moments of euphoria these men and women live for. It’s just too bad that off stage we only get to know them as hardened hip-hop caricatures, hellbent on maintaining street cred rather than transcending their inherited mores.

In fits and starts we follow Alkatraz, Trench, Alias, Keon and Knia on their daily grind, smoking spliffs, planning out their hopes and dreams, discussing potential overseas touring plans, shooting low budget music videos on the beaches of Lake Ontario, spending time with their kids and repping the importance of maintaining face on the streets, but these are not revelatory moments in the life of a rapper. If you’ve listened to any of the best hip-hop records from the past couple decades, you’ve already heard it all before. Born out of Toronto’s low income projects of Regent Park, Don Mills, and Jane and Finch, these rappers grew up on the streets, saw the lines drawn in the sand and now aim to represent the marginalized with voices poised and promising retribution through recordings.

Not a rapper, but a promoter, Knia is the only exception to this construct. A student of law with kids on the home front, he risks his own cash to put on local hip-hop showcases, often taking a loss for the sake of the artists he helps out in doing so. Once upon a time, he managed Alias as he made his way to mainstream success, but they lost it all when the rapper discharged a firearm into a crowd and was subsequently locked up for his arrogant stupidity. Unlike the others, either starry-eyed or cagey, Knia let’s his guard down, giving insight into why he continues to work in the music business with so much already on his plate. He sees these artists as diamonds in the rough needing a little polish. With his guidance and motivation, they could break out of their insular worlds of urban Toronto into something bigger than themselves, yet the film seems to suggest he better keep dreaming. Alkatraz remains hard-headed, Trench seems too irresponsible, Alias now all but washed up – Keon, the only female of the bunch, seems the only one level-headed and driven enough to make the leap that Knia advocates. Perhaps for her, music will serve as the golden ticket out of the projects that everyone else is searching for.

Generally shallow in her depiction of these artists’ lives, Latimer finds her stride by subverting convention in several long visual sequences overlapped with soul-searching discourse. These stylistic flourishes spice up the cinematics by diverging from the to-the-camera confessionals that line the film, but they fail to flesh out her overarching narrative in any real meaningful way. With glimpses of fascinating back stories, we want to know what led Alias to pull a gun or why Alkatraz doesn’t let his best friends know where he lives, but we aren’t given enough time with them. Running only a brisk 67 minutes, Alias is a brief look into a music scene brimming with talent, but impeded by a mind set anchoring them at a disadvantage. Latimer’s film, teeming with visual flair and alluring personality, seems to suffer from the same downtrodden ethos.

Reviewed on April 25th at the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival – Canadian Spectrum Programme. 67 min

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