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SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

The right to party

A Beastie Boys bash and a crop of hip-hop films ring in the genre's presence at the event.

January 28, 2006|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

PARK CITY, Utah — "Park City, Utah, in the house, yo!" hip-hop turntablist Mix Master Mike hollered from his DJ perch at the Legacy Lodge, a nightclub at the bottom of a ski run here.

A roiling crowd of 1,200 responded to this hip-hop roll call by bellowing back at the DJ during the event sponsored by Gen Art and Myspace.com to celebrate the Sundance Film Festival.

Electronic beats began to boom through the cavernous space. And with that, the Beastie Boys, the party's headline act, launched into a rendition of their 2004 song, "Triple Trouble."

"So you're all from Utah?" the Beasties' Mike D (Mike Diamond) said at the song's conclusion. "I'm from money-makin' Manhattan!"

Music and movies have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. And in recent years, rock bands have established a beachhead at Sundance, providing scores for independent films and performing at festival events. Call it an exercise in expanding their pop cultural presence among Hollywood taste-makers.

But judging by the two rap-related feature films at Sundance this year -- and a performance that jacked up the buzz -- hip-hop has officially crashed the indie film party.

The Beastie Boys rockumentary, whose title can't be printed in a family newspaper, was assembled from amateur footage shot by fans on 50 digital video recorders handed out at one of the band's concerts. Directed by Nathanial Hornblower (an alias of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch), the feature was part of Sundance's "Park City at Midnight" lineup of what festival organizers call "bizarre films that defy categorization."

"Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture," directed by Long Island, N.Y., filmmaker Byron Hurt, was shown as part of Sundance's Spectrum showcase for non-competing films from "promising new filmmakers" that are lumped under the festival banner. The hour-long documentary investigates the violence, homophobia and misogyny at the heart of hip-hop's hyper-masculine culture. It also looks at the music's shift away from urgent political messages.

"The Hip Hop Project," a documentary that premiered in Los Angeles, chronicles a social outreach program empowering inner-city teens -- the project teaches self-realization through helping kids learn MC and DJ skills. The film was received warmly by studio executives before the festival and word reached organizers of Starbucks Salon, which hosts musicians with film industry connections. The musical showcase also invited a collective of nine Hip Hop Project graduates (and their six-piece backing band) to perform in front of a packed house on Park City's Main Street earlier this week.

One of the subjects of "The Hip Hop Project," Chris "Kazi" Rolle, explained the group's rationale for coming to the festival.

"We never knew what Sundance was. I found out what it means once I got here," he said. "We didn't even find out what was screening. Instead of us coming here and it being about [simply promoting] our movie, we focused on our performance. People would be like, 'All right, let's see what these kids can do ... Oh, wow, there's a movie too? I want to find out more.' "

It isn't as if hip-hop and Sundance have no shared history. Last year, rappers Snoop Dogg and Ludacris flew in to perform for festival-related events. And with rap's almost hegemonic presence at the top of the pop charts, it's no coincidence that filmmakers would look for a way to cash in on its popularity -- even indie acquisitions execs have to consider the bottom line.

But in ways both minor and profound, the music's underdog status is a perfect fit for Sundance's self-styled independent spirit. To wit, the enthusiastic applause that greeted the Hip Hop Project wordsmiths as they bounded up to a small stage on the second floor of a Park City Starbucks.

Over the course of a raucous 45-minute mini-set, the late-teen and early 20s MCs rapped about many of the big issues that have also been tackled by Sundance Film Festival entries. Among them: the psychic toll of abortion, honoring the dead and coping with low self-esteem.

"Hip-hop comes from oppressed people, people that have nothing," Rolle said. "That's the key. It's a way to empower yourself. It became the voice of all these young people and all the hardships that're going on in the world."

Even with all the festival's apparent warm fuzzy feelings for hip-hop, the music's culture -- and its sometimes paradoxical pairing of impassioned activism with chest-thumping braggadocio -- wasn't spared harsh scrutiny.

In "Beyond Beats," Busta Rhymes becomes so agitated by director Hurt's questioning about the correlation between hip-hop's machismo posturing and its homoerotic undercurrent, the rapper walks out on the interview.

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