2001, R, 102 min. Directed by Doug Pray.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 22, 2002
Doug Pray's previous music doc -- 1996's Hype! -- chronicled the rise and fall of the Seattle grunge scene; by film's end you realized for all the crazy beauty in front of you, what you were really witnessing was a death knell. Not so with Scratch, which arrives with the same outsider music sensibility as its predecessor but celebrates the birth -- and ongoing development -- of a whole new music subgenre that's as likely to fade away as ex-grunge queen Courtney Love is likely to settle up with her late husband's old bandmates. As Pray notes in Hype!, so much of the grunge phenomenon was predicated on the Pacific Northwest gloom: The constant precipitation did as much, if not more, than the constant narcotics to forge the music's doomy sound. But Scratch, which tracks the evolution of hip-hop DJs' love affair with “scratching” records (that is, moving the needle across the vinyl to create those omnipresent whizzing sounds) and the various permutations that have come to be known collectively as “turntablism,” is so upbeat it might as well arrive on a sunbeam. The DJs and artists profiled -- San Francisco's legendary Qbert, NYC guru Africa Bambaataa, and the Beastie Boys' Mixmaster Mike are just a few with whom Pray talks -- are so relentlessly upbeat and cheerful, eagerly proselytizing about their craft to anyone who will listen, that you can't help but grin along with these manic soundscapers. There's South Bronx scratchmaster Grand Wizard Theodore reminiscing about the good old days before hip-hop became just another cultural mall outlet story, and Grandmixer DXT recalling his famous remix of jazz impresario Herbie Hancock's 1984 breakthrough “Rockit” (considered the first major-label scratch tune). DJ Shadow comes closest to typifying the musician-as-brooding-outsider (as seen in Pray's previous film) with his dark, loping beats and eerie chiaroscuros of sound. Even though much of the DJ culture scene is based in San Francisco these days, Scratch also pays homage to East Coast upstarts like the X-ecutioners Rob Swift and the turntablist crew the Beat Junkies. It's a global phenomenon, apparent in everything from television car commercials (where scratching is so often used as background sound that it comes as a shock when it's absent) to bubblegum pop music and, always and forever, hip-hop of all stripes. In a bold editing move, Pray has crafted the visual style of his film to echo its subject matter. Scratch is as arresting to watch as it is to listen to, filled as it is with stuttery edits and choppy, back-'n'-forth cutting that mimics the whip-handed fading on the soundtrack. Best of all is a lengthy sequence of scratchers out “digging,” trolling through basement storehouses of thousands of old LPs, searching for hours, even days at a time, for that elusive beat or break or sample that will become the foundation for a whole new sequence or song. Tireless (and peerless), these geeky, gawky outsiders rummage through the abandoned detritus of the whole of recorded audio, reshaping what they find into new and previously unimagined forms. It's a remarkable and passionate skill, and Pray's film (itself remarkable and passionate) is a nothing short of a respectful testament to the ingenious creative drive of the outsider. (Scratch premiered in Austin during SXSW Film 2001.)