Ever since Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City just said no to fantasy back in 1945, realism has been a stalwart influence in narrative cinema. But at what point did classic narrative film grammar — Act I conflict introduced, Act II conflict impossible to overcome, Act III conflict overcome — cross-over into documentaries? That’s one of many questions unintentionally raised by Gabriel Noble’s P-Star Rising, which premieres tonight at Tribeca. The kid-rock-doc is a sympathetic portrait of big-dreams bricked-in by inner city life, but will have some audiences finding moral and structural qualms.
We first meet pint-sized P-star sneaking into a hip-hop club with her dad in tow to wow the room with flow that seems incongruous with her 9-year old frame. This contrast of childhood and hip-hop bravado is a leitmotif that will make you squirm and question why any parent would want to put their kid through the limelight machine in the first place.
The answer rests with P-Star’s dad, Jesse — a Rocky Balboa figure staging his comeback to the game through his daughter. After his own career tanked and his life turned into the source-material for countless hip-hop anthems — drug deals, prison time, and two kids mothered by a heroin-addicted girlfriend — Jesse got back on his feet and reclaimed his daughters from the foster care system. One of them developed a learning disability while the other inherited another affliction — talent.
From cramped clubs to skeevy record label offices, P-Star’s career escalates in a way that narrative films usually summarize with a montage sequence of limousines, new digs, and dressing rooms. Instead, the journey to minor-fame and minor-fortune is elongated to cue us in to the impending crash: the moment Jesse takes their first big check and drops it on a huge gold-chain instead of a college fund, we know what’s coming. When he gets behind the wheel of his Hummer, we’re prepared for the traffic accident we won’t be able to look away from.
Then again, we’re also prepared for redemption. And in typical three-act structure, the road back is tougher than the initial ascension we’ve experienced. It also offers some of the film’s most interesting moments. Arguments between P-Star and her father prove their relationship to be an odd reversal of roles; P-Star’s talent is not the only thing she has over her old man, she’s also more of an adult.
It’s also here that the film takes its first sidestep from the celebrity quest narrative and becomes something more, as the family tries to track down P-Star’s mom. It’s a hard sequence to watch, but also a high point of the film: It offers up insight into broken inner-city families, which all too often have their pop culture image sealed within the walls of hip-hop lyrics. And to that end P-Star is an honest story, even if its structure has been dictated by a perceived need for things to somehow fit into a screenplay-inspired box. The film doesn’t make an argument for the direction modern docs should take, but its success should help give P-star the happy ending the filmmakers, and we, want her to have.
For additional info, including the details about tomorrow night’s free screening of P-Star Rising, click here.