TIME Music

David Byrne and Jonathan Demme on The Making of Stop Making Sense

David Byrne in Stop Making Sense Courtesy Palm Pictures

The Talking Heads frontman and the film's director reflect on the seminal rock documentary

It’s been 30 years since the release of Stop Making Sense, the Jonathan Demme-directed Talking Heads concert pic that’s widely recognized as one of the greatest live music films of all time.

Stop Making Sense paired Demme — years before he won Best Director for Silence of the Lambs — with the band Talking Heads, just as the New York-based art rock group were becoming musical icons.

The film begins with the band’s frontman and impresario, David Byrne, walking on stage a boombox in hand. He sets it down, turns it on and starts to sing along with the Talking Heads’ song “Psycho Killer.” He is soon joined by bassist Tina Weymouth while stagehands build a drum platform for Chris Frantz. Backup singers and horn players appear and the show goes on, building into a frenzy while Byrne throws himself around the stage like a possessed version of Mick Jagger. That energy carries throughout the film, fusing Demme’s sweeping cinematographic style with Byrne’s eye for stagecraft and the art of the show.

To mark the occasion, the film is being made available digitally for the first time ever by Palm Pictures, along with a limited theatrical engagement this summer and fall. When asked why it took so long for a film that used some of the most modern equipment and techniques of its age — it was the first rock movie made using entirely digital audio techniques — to become available digitally, Demme shrugged: “I guess we just weren’t paying attention?”

TIME talked to both Demme and Byrne as they reflected on making Stop Making Sense and the lasting legacy of the film:

Demme: “In early 1983, Gary Goetzman and I went to see my favorite band, the Talking Heads, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. The show was like seeing a movie just waiting to be filmed. We tracked David Byrne down and pitched him on the idea of teaming up to make the picture.”

Byrne: “I realized the show was ‘cinematic’ and that it sort of had a narrative arc. It might work on film, or so I believed.”

Demme: “David really saw this movie in his own head long before we came and pitched him on letting us shoot it.”

The two connected through a mutual friend, Nadia Ghaleb (according to Byrne), but they already shared a mutual appreciation of each others’ work.

Byrne: “I knew Jonathan’s work. I loved Melvin and Howard.”

Demme: “I was a Talking Heads fan from the very beginning.”

To make the film, the band turned to the parent company of their record label, Sire, for funding.

Byrne: “Our manager, the late Gary Kurfirst, went to Warner Records for a ‘loan.’ They got paid back and sold some live albums too.

With financing secured, the filming could begin.

Byrne: “Jonathan followed us on tour for about a week or so prior to filming, so he knew the show pretty well.”

Demme: “The big suit, the lighting, the staging, the choreography, the song line-up — everything was there in the show before the filmmakers showed up.”

The so-called big suit became one of the most iconic images of the show, the band and the film:

Demme: “It was all part of David Byrne’s original concept for the staged show, from the beginning.”

Byrne: “I was in Japan in between tours and I was checking out traditional Japanese theater — Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku — and I was wondering what to wear on our upcoming tour. A fashion designer friend (Jurgen Lehl) said in his typically droll manner, ‘Well David, everything is bigger on stage.’ He was referring to gestures and all that, but I applied the idea to a businessman’s suit.”

Filming took place over four nights at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, while the Talking Heads were on tour following the release of their album, Speaking in Tongues:

Demme: “Those four nights of filming were four of the most thrilling shoots of my life. Everything went flying by so fast it was just one ecstatic blur for me.”

Byrne: “During the shoot every day was spent re-balancing the lights so that the show would look to the camera as it did to the eye, as well as blocking out camera moves.”

Demme: “It was wonderful that our Director of Photography was the late/great Jordan Cronenweth, because Jordan was able to help David achieve on screen what was never completely possible with the lighting scheme in those big live arena shows, because there’s so much ambient light in those rooms that it blows out the starkness of true graphic black and white lighting design.”

Byrne had an attention to detail and an eye for design that was vast in scope:

Byrne: ”Edna Holt, one of the incredible singers (see 20 Feet from Stardom) changed her hair the day before we started shooting! I freaked out — hair whipping was a big part of the show —so I paid for her to get a weave immediately. It took her many, many hours, poor girl, but it worked.”

Courtesy Palm Pictures

Stop Making Sense was a true collaboration between the two men, with each contributing their own aesthetic ideas about music, cinematography and stagecraft into a cohesive whole of avant-garde rock-and-roll theater. Both Demme and Byrne were eager to credit their collaboration and each other for the end result:

Demme: “Most of these dynamics arose from David Byrne’s original vision, but it was a highly collaborative experience.”

Byrne: “Jonathan saw things in the show that I didn’t realize where there or didn’t realize how important they were.”

Demme: “We shot it together, cut and mixed it together, and we all went running off to the festival circuit together as soon as we had our first print.”

Byrne: “[Demme] saw the interaction of the personalities on stage, how it was an ‘ensemble piece’ if it were viewed as one would a scripted film. He also realized that to suck the viewer into that ensemble, there would be no interviews and no shots of the audience until almost the very end.”

Demme: “In the cutting room we quickly discovered that there was always something far more interesting going on on stage than in the ‘best’ of our audience footage. This led to the realization that if we pulled back from showing the live audience, it made our film feel that much more specially created for our movie audience!”

The film also used a number of long camera shots to capture all the on-stage action in beautiful sweeping shots. It’s something Demme would replicate in future music documentaries like Storefront Hitchcock and Neil Young: Heart of Gold.

Demme: “The use of extended shots instead of quick cuts is a result of my belief that there is great power available by holding on any extended terrific moment and letting the viewer become more deeply involved in the performance at hand, instead of constantly interrupting the flow with un-needed cuts. Too much cutting usually speaks to a lack of editorial confidence in the players and the music.”

Courtesy Palm Pictures

While Byrne tends to be the film’s focal point — and he is rarely off-camera throughout — the real star of the show is the music: the exuberant, funk-influenced rock that pushed the Talking Heads from the New York underground, where they opened for the Ramones at CBGB, to hitting the Billboard charts. The film captures their energy perfectly, building in tempo and attempting to force even the most reluctant audience members from their seats:

Byrne: “There were many screenings, film festivals and all that — many of which featured dancing in the aisles.”

Demme: “I adore film and I adore music. I often find myself feeling that filming music is somehow the purest form of filmmaking. This crazed collision of sound and images, the intense collaboration, these incredibly cinematic performances. And for the nights you’re filming, a non-player like me gets to feel somehow part of the band.”

Byrne: “I think the film and the show showed that a pop concert could be a kind of theater — not in the pretentious sense, but in the sense that it could be visually and even sort of dramatically sophisticated and yet you could still dance to it.”

Demme: “I knew that we had captured the magic of an extraordinary band at just the right moment, but didn’t imagine it would still be so around and feeling so fresh 30 years later. Makes sense now, though.”

Demme: “I love this film passionately with all my heart.”

You can purchase Stop Making Sense on iTunes here.

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TIME movies

What One Filmmaker Learned by Being with Roger Ebert at the End

Steve James' documentary 'Life Itself' looks at the legendary critic's life and legacy

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The time it takes to make a documentary film may vary, but Steve James’ work on Life Itself had a limited timeline. The Hoop Dreams director began filming in December of 2012; his subject, the legendary critic Roger Ebert, died of cancer only a few months later, in April 2013. (James says that he believes he took the last-ever picture of Ebert. The film, which is named after Ebert’s memoir of the same name, arrives in theaters on July 4.) And, despite its title, James says the film — as a result of its timing — is in many ways more about death than about life.

“I like to think he shows us how to die,” says James. “And how to do it with tremendous grace and generosity.”

James says that he knew from the beginning that, though the documentary intended to address Ebert’s effect on film culture — TIME’s film critic Richard Corliss is among the interviewees, and he wrote about Ebert for the latest issue of the magazine — and his critical career, it wouldn’t just be about Ebert at the movies. Rather, just as his life influenced his critical opinions, his fame as a critic would be a way to talk about the rest of his life. The key, James says, is that Ebert had learned how to embrace life, struggles and all, and to let that love inform his work — and, eventually, his death.

James says that Ebert was initially reluctant to share some of the grittier facts of his physical decline. When he first had jaw surgery that left his face disfigured, James notes, he kept an old photo of himself as the image on his website; he finally revealed his new face in a 2011 blog post that James says was a result of deciding that he didn’t want to hide anymore, a decision that would come to define what many remember about him. Even people who weren’t film buffs looked to him as an example of someone confronting illness and death head-on. As Life Itself (the film) points out, Ebert’s colleague and professional rival Gene Siskel died in the late ’90s after having been extremely private about the progression of his own cancer. Ebert’s feelings about Siskel were complicated, but the secret illness and sudden death were shocking; after seeing Siskel make that decision about how to die, Ebert went the opposite direction.

Even so, with the world clued in to his illness, allowing a camera into his hospital room took extra guts. “[Being open about his illness] was what made him more than a film critic to a lot of people,” James says. “There’s a level of candor there that was courageous, but it wasn’t the same as inviting a film crew into a hospital room and seeing him get suctioned.”

As Ebert’s health declined even further, while James was still working on the movie, the critic’s candor gave way to doctors’ demands to keep him away from distractions. When he returned to the hospital near the end of his life, they didn’t want to tire him out with filming, and James says that he agreed that — when it was clear that the critic’s energy was failing — they had reached the point where openness gives way to a family’s need for privacy. And besides, James says, there’s a reason why the balance of candor and discretion ended up just where he wanted it: his subject was uniquely qualified to know what needed to be seen on camera.

“I think he realized that if he was going to have a documentary made about himself,” James says, “he wanted it to be a documentary that would be the kind of documentary he would want to see.”

TIME Documentary

Aaron Swartz Documentary Steers Clear of Suicide Conversation

Aaron Swartz
The programmer Aaron Swartz on Aug. 19, 2009. Sage Ross—picture-alliance/dpa/A

A new documentary about a young man who took his own life while facing charges on computer crimes skips a much-needed conversation about suicide

The Internet’s Own Boy is a new documentary out Friday with a controversial premise: It theorizes that laws designed to protect us online — and those who pen, pass and implement them — are not only failing to keep us safe, but they may have the power to kill. The film posits that such failings contributed to the suicide of activist Aaron Swartz in January of last year, when he was just 26 years old.

Swartz suffered from debilitating ulcerative colitis — a bowel condition — as well as crippling depression. His depression only worsened as he and his family spent millions defending against felony charges and a steep prison sentence he faced for downloading millions of academic articles via The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer labs. Swartz’s family called the incident “an alleged crime that had no victims.”

The film reinforces what The New Yorker’s Larissa Macfarquhar, in her engrossing profile of Swartz, calls the family’s message that Swartz was “murdered by the government.” Macfarquhar says that the family deployed that idea in the aftermath of Swartz’s suicide to “direct public sadness and anger to political purposes,” though she writes that while the family doesn’t believe this, they have publicly stuck to it.

In any other era, finding enough footage and photos of someone who lived such a short life would be challenging, but Swartz lived online from the start—it was the space he preferred most. The film is rich with visuals documenting his existence, rendering him sympathetic and lovable to those who never met him.

Swartz helped developed and later sold Reddit, then pioneered political activism organizations that worked to fight the anti-piracy Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) as well as catalyze Elizabeth Warren’s Senate bid. He harbored political aspirations, and the film suggests he could have been among the first politicians to understand the Internet well enough to keep us from censoring it or destroying ourselves with it. Swartz’s capacity for kindness and idealism inverts the stereotype of the tortured coder. He accomplished more in a couple of decades than most people hope to in a lifetime.

This flattering portrait of Swartz sets up one of the film’s major takeaways that hews to the family’s message—that bullying, overreaching prosecutors pursing too harsh a sentence, coupled with a silent university, bear responsibility for Swartz taking his own life. The film derives its title from this idea.

“He was the Internet’s own boy, and the old world killed him,” says Swartz’s former partner, Quinn Norton. It’s a galvanizing theory, but it’s also dangerous for viewers or admirers of Swartz to believe this to be the only reason for his death. It’s too simplistic, too rote. The film would be even more dynamic and challenging if it had questioned this hypothesis.

While the harassment by the justice system seems unjust and even abusive, Swartz’s death should not only compel us to question our law enforcers and lawmakers, but should encourage us to examine the blight of suicide more closely. We otherwise run the risk of settling for what famed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls a single story — one that’s flat and dimensionless because it’s the only one we hear.

Suicide is an epidemic; one million adults attempted suicide and more than two million planned to attempt suicide in 2012, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Men account for nearly 80% of these deaths. Someone leaps from the Golden Gate Bridge approximately every two weeks. Alcohol, opiates (including painkillers) and access to guns are all known risk factors for suicides, which comprise two-thirds of all gun deaths. No two suicides are alike, and yet every individual who takes his or her own life has something in common.

Suicide is increasingly reported in the news, particularly when the victim is young and there is bullying is involved. Bart Palosz, Rebecca Sedwick, Karyn Washington and Cora Delille all took their own lives in the last year and a half since Swartz’s death and were the subject of news stories. Discussion of blame is common—who’s at fault for such overwhelming pain, such unexplained horror. Families often blame themselves, according to research from Nassau Community College. In the cases of Phoebe Prince and Rebecca Sedwick, law enforcement initially fingered and pursued prosecuting high school bullies. But blame, while a natural inclination, can rupture a community, as it did in the cases of Prince and Sedwick, and ruin even more lives in its wake.

Swartz’s internal struggle in the months leading to his death, recounted by friends and family in the film, is tragic. They said he was “terrified” and became increasingly “isolated from friends and family.”

“He didn’t want to be a burden to people,” said partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman.

While Swartz’s death may very well be explained in part by “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” as his family said in a statement released after his death, butit’s dangerous to only frame the tragedy that way because while it starts an important discussion about preserving our liberties as Americans, it halts another valuable one about suicide, its myths and hard truths and how we might help keep each other and those we love safe.

Yarrow is a TIME contributing writer and journalist living in Brooklyn.

TIME movies

Aaron Swartz Wanted to Change the World, Says Director

The Internet's Own Boy is in theaters June 27

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When news broke early last year that Internet activist Aaron Swartz had been found dead, filmmaker Brian Knappenberger was already deeply immersed in the hacking and computer programming world. Fresh off the release of a documentary about the Anonymous movement, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, the filmmaker had been following the ongoing lawsuit against Swartz, who faced charges related to illegal access of the JSTOR academic-article service.

But it wasn’t until after Swartz’s suicide that Knappenberger understood what a big deal the Swartz case was. “I was on a panel in New York City about a week after. It seemed like everyone had a story about him,” Knappenberger recalls. “There was this incredible wave of anger and sympathy and frustration, far beyond people who had even heard about this kid and far beyond people who knew him personally.”

Why did people–even those who had never met him–care so much about Swartz? What struck a nerve with people who didn’t really understand what the 26-year-old Harvard University Fellow was working on? Intrigued, Knappenberger decided to make a movie. The result, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, arrives in theaters June 27. Along the way, the director figured out that caring about Swartz had nothing to do with meeting him or understanding his work, or even agreeing with what he was trying to do with the open-access movement.

“There’s this Silicon Valley notion that they’re going to change the world. Every start-up says that. It’s become an absurd slogan at this point,” Knappenberger says. “Aaron genuinely wanted to change the world.”

For the filmmaker, Swartz’s story became a way to talk about problems with the criminal justice system and with the start-up “money treadmill.” That narrative benefitted from the fact that Swartz wasn’t an anarchy-style extremist — “I’ve made films about those people,” says Knappenberger. “That wasn’t Aaron.” In other words, Swartz’s story, as told by friends and family, is relatable.

“I don’t feel like I make movies about hackers. It’s just human. This is the world that we live in now. The Internet is not some distant realm of geeks and hackers. It’s the place where you live. We spend all of our time on the Internet. Every important part of our lives has an online component to it,” Knappenberger says, though he admits with a laugh that his next project is about hackers too. “The point I would love to say to people is that you get a say in this. Don’t leave it to the coders and programmers and hackers. This is about your world.”

TIME movies

A Filmmaker Taped 112 Weddings. Here’s What He Learned About Marriage

Doug Block turned his wedding-videographer gig into a documentary

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For decades, documentary filmmaker Doug Block has supplemented his income with wedding-video gigs — and he’s now combined the two to make a documentary, 112 Weddings, which is out in the UK today and premieres in the U.S. on HBO on June 30. In the film, Block revisits several of the couples whose weddings he filmed to see how their marriages have worked out. The couples are divorced and still together, childless and with children, happy and not so much, but they all open up about what’s caused their marriages to work out the way they have.

“People conflate the wedding with the marriage and the getting married with the being married,” Block explains. “That’s really what the film is: so many movies end at the wedding day with the happy ending being the wedding, and I thought what an interesting place to start.”

And, it turned out, Block wasn’t the only one who wanted to know what would happen. He says that interest in 112 Weddings was probably the highest of any project he’s worked on — though he’s not sure whether people were more interested in finding the secret to happiness or just getting in a little schadenfreude. If it was the former, viewers are in luck: Block, who’s been married 28 years himself, says he learned something from all of the couples with whom he reconnected. He jokes that now he knows enough to become a love consultant to the stars and charge exorbitant fees for his advice, but he was willing to share a little knowledge with TIME pro bono.

So, after more than 100 weddings filmed and about a dozen revisited, what’s Block’s top advice about marriage?

“Pick wisely is the best advice,” he says. “You’d better find somebody who feels like your jokes are funny.”

Beyond that, it’s important to stay flexible and accept imperfections. After all, he says, you can’t prepare for marriage because it’s a lifelong commitment and there’s no way to know what will happen in your life. It’s more important to be ready to face what you don’t expect than to think hard about your expectations.

Block also says that one of his favorite parts of the film is a discussion of the concept of “soulmates,” something he and at least one interviewee agree is pretty weird, the idea that there’s one person out there who you’ll be happy with forever. In reality, he’s noticed, love and affection come in waves, and a couple can want nothing to do with each other and then feel great about their marriage all within a short period of time.

“A lot of marriage is coming to terms with who is this imperfect person you’re living with, and acknowledging that you’re not exactly a perfect person either,” he says. “The ideal to me of marriage is you’re both growing as individuals but you’re not growing apart. You’re supporting each other in your growth. That’s what keeps the bond tight, because you’re not stagnating, you’re not getting dull.”

It’s clear from the film that the storybook idea of marriage is unrealistic — but that a wedding can be worthwhile anyway. “As I say in the film,” Block says, “happy ever after is complicated.”

TIME movies

PHOTOS: Bonkers Victorian Taxidermy, Now Getting the Documentary Treatment

Proof that meme-worthy animals pre-date the Internet: a classroom full of taxidermic bunnies

The human drive to anthropomorphize animals is alive and well in today’s Doge and Grumpy Cat memes — but at least one earlier expression of that urge was a lot more extreme.

Walter Potter was a taxidermist working in Victorian England who took a unique (to say the least) approach to the art. His pieces positioned animals in human scenes, with results that are half-cute, half-macabre. As a result, though few would argue that his works were the highest quality specimens, he was able to gain fame during his lifetime with a small museum that held his work. When his museum closed, his collection was dispersed; that diaspora made it hard for the collection to be studied, but perhaps easier for it to become popular all over the world. His fame has persisted, with fans including David Sedaris and Damien Hirst.

Now, he’s getting the documentary treatment: the short doc by filmmaker Ronni Thomas, Walter Potter: The Man Who Married Kittens, will premiere at New York’s Morbid Anatomy Museum on June 6. (And yes, as you can see in the photo here, he did make a taxidermy tableau of a kitten wedding.) The movie looks at the Victorian context that gave rise to the oddness of his work, and at the collectors who desire his pieces today. Thomas first started the project as a book trailer for the book Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy, by Pat Morris and Joanna Ebenstein; Ebenstein ended up producing the film — and taking the photos in the gallery below — when it turned out there was more than a trailer’s worth of material. As Thomas says in his director’s statement, “a mythical figure began to emerge from a simple man with questionable talents.”

Take a look at the photos and it will be easy to see why he felt that way.

TIME movies

VIDEO: The Real Burt of Burt’s Bees Gets Mobbed by Fans in Taiwan

A new documentary goes behind the iconic lip balm

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When filmmaker Jody Shapiro got ready to shoot one particular sequence for his new documentary, he told the crew to watch the opening scene of A Hard Day’s Night, the classic cinematic representation of extreme fan mania.

As is clear in the special preview clip above, available early via TIME, that recommendation wasn’t without reason — except the person being mobbed by fans, shown here at an airport in Taiwan, isn’t a Beatle. It’s Burt Shavitz. If you recognize him, it’s probably from the woodcut of his face that has adorned the packaging of Burt’s Bees products for years.

Shavitz, a Mainer who has led a life that’s nothing if not unusual, is the subject of Burt’s Buzz (in theaters and VOD June 6), a look at the life of the man who started it all. He’s been a photographer, a journalist, an environmentalist, a beekeeper — and, apparently, an icon. In fact, it was hearing about what had happened during Shavitz’s prior business trips to the area and an upcoming trip to Taiwan, where Shavitz was traveling as a spokesperson for the brand, that convinced Shapiro to turn his lens toward his subject. “I’d heard about the screaming girls at the airport and I’d heard about the lines around the block, and I thought that would be a perfect opportunity to go deeper into the story,” Shapiro tells TIME. Even so, his expectations for a celeb-worthy reception were exceeded.

To Shavitz, however, being a celebrity is neither here nor there. He guesses in the film that part of the reason he gets such enthusiastic responses from fans of the product is that it’s unusual for a picture on a tube of face product to be of a real guy. But the moment that was caught on film was just one of many for him, and it’s been going on for years. “All the world’s a stage,” he tells TIME. “I never stopped to think about it. It was immaterial as far as I was concerned.”

As the movie makes clear, what interests him most isn’t being famous — it’s getting home to his dog.

TIME movies

A James Franco Documentary Is Heading Our Way

"Palo Alto" - Los Angeles Premiere
James Franco arrives at the Los Angeles Premiere "Palo Alto" at the DGA Theatre on May 5, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Jon Kopaloff--FilmMagic

The prolific actor and artist is the subject of an upcoming documentary which follows a year in his life

Actor/director/writer/academic/artist/social media expert James Franco can now add one more title to his resume: documentary subject. The Wrap reports that first-time director Lisa Vangellow is finishing up a documentary about Franco’s professional and private life.

Called — appropriately enough — Franco: A Documentary, the doc began filming in June 2013 and will cover Franco’s experiences in the art world in addition to his acting career. There will be no shortage of material, as Franco has worked in more than a dozen films over the past year as well as starred in Broadway’s Of Mice and Men, published his first novel and worked on myriad art projects and exhibits. (It also seems likely that the film will touch on Franco’s recent Instagram debacles.)

According to The Wrap, Vangellow, who also produced the doc, had access to Franco’s family and close friends, including Seth Rogen and Museum of Modern Art chief curator-at-large Klaus Biesenbach.

We’re not sure who Vangellow’s intended audience is with the project — we don’t recall anyone clamoring for more James Franco, after all — but perhaps this will be the actor’s chance to pull off a more subtle version of Joaquin Phoenix’s I’m Still Here and reveal that he’s been messing with us all along.

[The Wrap]

 

TIME movies

Nas Documentary Time Is Illmatic Opens Tribeca Film Festival

Nas at Tribeca Film Festival.
Nas at Tribeca Film Festival. Andy Kropa—Invision/AP

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of his critically acclaimed debut album, Illmatic, rapper Nas kicked off the Tribeca Film Festival with a documentary screening and special performance

“Who woulda thunk it?” rapper Nasir “Nas” Jones asks early on in the documentary Time Is Illmatic, which opened the 13th annual Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday night at New York City’s Beacon Theater.

The unlikely story of how Nas went from eighth-grade dropout to one of hip-hop’s most celebrated and intellectual rappers is the subject of the new documentary, which weaves together archival footage, family photos, and interviews with hip-hop legends to explore the behind-the-scenes making of Nas’ landmark debut, Illmatic, which turns 20 years old this week.

Festival co-founder Robert De Niro, who Nas joked “plays me in all his movies,” helped introduce the film, calling it a storyabout the making of an artist here in our hometown.” Directed by One9, Time Is Illmatic marks the second time in a row the festival has kicked off with a musical documentary — following last year’s Mistaken for Strangers, about the band The National.

Since its release in 1994, Illmatic has sold more than a million copies and been the subject of multiple books and scholarly works. Critics credit Nas’ poetic wordplay and intricate rhymes with reinvigorating East Coast rap at a time when the West Coast ruled, and the album has since become a gold standard for hip-hop debuts. Time Is Illmatic does its best to show why, splicing clips of Nas’ early performances to highlight the vivid imagery — “I went to hell for snuffing Jesus,” “I’m waving automatic guns at nuns” — that stunned New York producers and attracted record labels’ attention.

Of course, if there were any lingering doubts about the rapper’s talent and charisma after the film, Nas likely settled it with a performance of Illmatic, which also featured a surprise guest performance from Alicia Keys (who briefly appears in the movie). Sauntering on stage dressed in all black and clutching a bottle of Hennessy, Nas breezed through the nine-song set, only stopping between songs to tell stories about the album’s genesis to a theater full of the album’s collaborators.

Consider it his way of giving back. The documentary is a love letter to Illmatic, and it’s also an effective example of how politics and policy can shape art and popular culture. Time Is Illmatic spends far more documenting what happened outside of the studio than inside, providing a quick crash course in the history of white flight, the housing projects, local public education and the War on Drugs to contextualize Nas’ upbringing in the Queensbridge public housing development in Long Island City. In one of several interviews with hip-hop greats, rapper and producer Q-Tip offers a close reading of two lines from the song “One Love” — “Plus congratulations, you know you got a son / I heard he looks like you, why don’t your lady write you?” — to discuss the rampant incarceration of black men that destroyed many of the community’s families in what he calls “an African-American disease.”

Critics hailed Nas’s riveting tales of urban poverty and gang violence as a masterpiece, but on screen, Nas isn’t the most effective storyteller. The raspy rapper is quiet and pensive for much of the movie, leaving the most compelling accounts of the environment that produced Illmatic to others. His brother Jabari, whom Nas later joked was the real star of the film, offers the film’s most sobering moments as well as its funniest: In one scene, Jabari returns to the site of a murder he witnessed and describes the look on a late friend’s face as bullets passed through his body; moments later, he had the audience in fits of laugher after describing how he looked up from the concrete and asked Nas not to tell their mother about what happened.

Director One9 takes care to avoid making Time Is Illmatic an overly simplified story of a projects kid finding salvation in music: The rapper credits the involvement of his two parents with keeping him out of trouble as a child, but he notes that his father, blues musician Olu Dara, later split with his mom and encouraged him to drop out of school to educate himself. The film laments some generational changes in hip-hop, but it also explains the role of the crack epidemic in driving them. Instead of treating each Illmatic track as just another career milestone, the film uses them to illustrate larger points about the borough and the projects, covering years of Queensbridge rap without ever sensationalizing its history of drugs and violence.

In other words, Time Is Illmatic is as much about Nas as it his community, the story of Queensbridge told through one of its greatest artists. The most convincing way to tell the story of the neighborhood, it turns out, is not through its geography — it’s through the music.

“What you speak and put out into the universe,” Nas told the crowd between songs, “it’s real life.”

TIME movies

Iceland’s Penis Museum Got a New Specimen — And a Documentary

The Phallological Museum's curator talks to TIME about The Final Member

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Sigurður “Siggi” Hjartarson has something to say about the collection of penis specimens that comprise the Icelandic Phallological Museum: “I hope people realize this is not a joke.”

The museum, in Reykjavik, is the subject of filmmakers Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s documentary The Final Member, which has been playing festivals for more than a year and opens in select theaters April 18. Hjartarson is adamant that his museum is a scientific and cultural undertaking about which there’s no reason to be squeamish, and that there’s nothing erotic or pornographic about it. “I loathe pornography!” he tells TIME. “This is serious collecting on my part.”

But as Hjartarson, a former teacher, relates in the film, that collection came together in a roundabout fashion. After he acquired a bull’s “pizzle” in 1974, he started to receive penis specimens as joke gifts — and then, he tried to diversify his collection, and eventually complete it. “It’s just like any other collector’s mind,” he tells TIME. “You never get enough. Collectors, that’s how they think. They always want more specimens or different ones.” By the ’90s, his family objected to the amount of space the specimens took up in their house. In 1997, he opened a small museum with 62 items; it moved from the small town of Húsavik to the capital in 2011. Hjartarson has retired, but his son now runs the operations, and today the museum has specimens from every single mammal in Iceland as well as many foreign species, for a total of nearly 300.

And yes, that’s every Icelandic mammal — which means humans, too.

In fact, that’s just what the movie is about — the question of which human male would have the honor of donating to the museum first. The two top contenders are elderly Icelander Pall Arason, a noted womanizer, and a younger American named Tom Mitchell. We won’t spoil which one of them ends up contributing the titular member, but Hjartarson says that the film’s framing as a competition between the two — though it makes for a nice narrative arc and is good publicity for the museum — doesn’t entirely reflect reality. “I wasn’t altogether too happy about it but that’s a different matter. This is their film and I’m not intervening in any way,” he says. “I was getting so tired of it in the end because they were always asking only about the human [specimen].”

Which is why he asks that viewers keep in mind, as they watch The Final Member, why he wanted the human penis in the first place. There’s no difference, to him, between a human penis and that of a seal or a whale or a fox. Each one is part of a large collection — and it just happens that one had a movie made about it. “The human is not really special,” Hjartarson says. “It’s just one of 96 different species I’ve got.”

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