In 1986, a Dutch television personality named Marcel Vanthilt traveled to New York with nothing but a camera crew led by director Bram Van Splunteren, a shaky grasp on the English language, ever-present sunglasses, and a mandate to delve deep into the insular and exotic world of East Coast hip-hop for the benefit of his home audience. Big Fun In The Big Town follows Vanthilt, Splunteren, and company as they travel across some of New York’s meanest streets in search of hip-hop’s gritty and elusive soul. Vanthilt’s naïveté at times makes him come off like a comically oblivious boob from a Christopher Guest movie, like when he torturously asks early gangsta rapper Schoolly D, “Can you give us some examples of typical words you use in the rapping?” Yet Vanthilt’s fuzzy take on English, hip-hop, and American street culture didn’t keep him from accidentally doing justice to an impossibly rich, fertile subject in its relative infancy. The fates were unimaginably kind to the fearless cultural anthropologists behind Big Fun In The Big Town. They seemingly couldn’t turn around without bumping into a raw, hungry, and effortlessly engaging hip-hop legend in the making eager to talk to this curious foreigner and spread their emerging legends worldwide.
The subjects here radiate boyish, fresh-faced bravado: They’re in love with themselves and their own voices as only teenagers can be. Their boundless enthusiasm and self-love proves as infectious as it is magnetic. That’s especially true of an unforgettable sequence where the filmmakers travel to the modest home that 17-year-old L.L. Cool J then shared with his grandmother to discuss his penchant for tender love songs and the “L”s in his name. Big Fun combines fascinating glimpses into the lives of folks like DMC, Russell Simmons, and Doug E. Fresh, along with electric live performances by the likes of Biz Markie & Roxanne Shanté.
There’s an accidental eloquence, synchronicity, and chronology to Big Fun In The Big Town’s seemingly random, ramshackle structure. The documentary begins with a relic of the genre’s fabled past in the form of old-school legend Grandmaster Flash and ends with a vision of the genre’s future in Schoolly D, a roughneck MC then in the process of inventing a tougher, more profane mutation of hip-hop the world would soon come to know and fear as gangsta rap. In between, the filmmakers paint a fascinating, vibrant, and impressionistic account of the sum of East Coast hip-hop, from broke kids beatboxing in the street in hopes of scoring a record deal to Russell Simmons hatching big schemes of global domination in the offices of Def Jam. As journalism, Big Fun In The Big Town is sometimes naïve and littered with moments of culture-clash comedy, but as a time capsule of 1986 New York hip-hop, it’s essential.
Key features: None.