Near the end of "The Show," an up-close look inside the world of hip-hop, a group of old-school rappers sharing war stories at a coffee shop are asked to discuss the meaning of hip-hop.
Their answers center on expression -- the craft of creating new rhymes, capturing all kinds of situations, performing. Somebody gets up and imitates a gangsta rapper by moving from side to side, implying that the new stars don't work very hard to entertain. "You come to see us, you see a show," says one veteran.
In the next scene, the enormously successful gangsta-rap producer Dr. Dre is asked the same question. "Hip-hop is a way out," he replies dryly. "It's opportunity."
It's art. It's a ticket out of the ghetto. It's a zillion things in between, but most obviously, right now, it's a house divided: Old-school rhythmic theatrics has little in common with hard-core new "reality" rap. No longer commanding the mainstream attention that once was automatic, hip-hop is caught between the street and the pop charts, torn by the responsibility to reflect what's going on in the 'hood and the demands of the entertainment industry.
"The Show" illuminates those polarities. Alternating between extensive backstage interviews and concert footage shot primarily at the Armory in West Philadelphia last December, it probes the minds of current and former rap stars, and represents the viewpoints of gangstas (such as Snoop Doggy Dogg) and comparatively subdued hit makers such as Warren G, as well as such moguls as Russell Simmons of Def Jam and Suge Knight of Death Row Records.
This is its challenge: to deal responsibly with the issues raised by hip-hop while remaining, at heart, a freewheeling concert movie.
Sometimes this is easy: The segments involving the Wu-Tang Clan and Run DMC are genuinely engaging, full of peak-performance heat and a sense of purpose. Just as often, though, the concert scenes don't sustain interest. They're like so many multi-artist rap shows: Streaky, meandering, listless, overrun with cliches.
The documentary opens and closes with conversations between rap impresario Simmons (who was part of "The Show's" production team) and incarcerated rapper Slick Rick, taped during a visit with him at Riker's Island in New York. The intent is clear: This is a cautionary message to the generation of aspiring rappers who emulate the proto-gangsta Rick Slick, now serving time for attempted murder.
The two conclude that there's no need for rappers to practice the violence they often preach. But as some other segments make clear, that kind of talk doesn't wash with those who identify themselves as "associated" with gangstas. Snoop Doggy Dogg and his crew, Tha Dogg Pound, spend a good bit of camera time smoking pot, drinking and explaining and defending their behavior and lyrical approach: "All the [stuff] we're talking about is real," Snoop says at one point.
That may be, but when it comes time to make the bravado believable -- in performance, at the mike -- Snoop Doggy Dogg and the Dogg Pound falter.
This may be the enduring lesson of "The Show": While Snoop worries about how much "reality" he can get into his otherwise pedestrian raps, other artists -- including Run DMC, the unlikely heroes of this show -- are actually having fun cranking out vital, rhythmically taut raps that are refreshingly free of Doggy-style rhetorical doggerel.
Directed by Brian Robbins
Released by Savoy Pictures
Rated R (profanity)