Despite the fact that recording studios and record labels have long served to showcase a variety of musical talents, recent music documentaries on such subjects have framed their histories in largely genre-specific terms. Though Rick Springfield was one the studio’s biggest names, Dave Grohl’s Sound City was steadfast in its thesis that L.A.’s Sound City was the home of uncompromising, authentic rock. Danny O’Connor’s Upside Down similarly saw Creation Records’ promotion of both punk and New Wave as fitting a consistent definition of British rebellion.
Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, Jeff Broadway’s history of Los Angeles-based Stones Throw Records, refuses to make a false, simplified equivalence between label and genre. The documentary instead makes the case that a good label produces interesting work and develops talented, envelope-pushing artists by encouraging creative change and throwing caution to the wind. Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton decisively rejects genre borders by arguing that Stones Throw accomplished the same. The end result isn’t always convincing, but it’s an engaging and ambitious documentary that laudably seeks original ways of stylizing movies about music.
At a time in which hip-hop reached unprecedented commercial heights, Stones Throw offered an alternative space for what one talking head refers to as the “lost boys” of music. With its output of celebrated underground hip-hop titles by Lootpack, J Dilla and Madlib, the label quickly gained traction as a unique place in which MCs and DJs could develop their art without the pressures of commercial convention. The film traces founder Peanut Butter Wolf’s evolution from a New Wave-loving teen to a DJ alongside the late MC Charizma to his shepherding of Stones Throw within the rich L.A. hip-hop scene.
While Stones Throw’s most evident contribution to popular music is its output of underground hip-hop, the film stresses the label’s simultaneous interest in psychedelia, electronic music and even jazz in the case of Madlib (who also scores the film). Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton portrays Peanut Butter Wolf as a pioneer of matching DJs and MCs while pushing the boundaries of what constitutes “hip-hop.” The film thereby explores an interesting examination of the exponentially blurry and ever-shifting lines between musical genres. Kanye West, Questlove, and Common are trotted out as the requisite famous faces used to legitimate the film’s veneration of a label.
Like last year’s Muscle Shoals, Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton is more interested in capturing and depicting the milieu in which music is made than sticking to a linear unfolding of an organization’s history. The film attempts to match the inventiveness of Stones Throw’s artists with an equally inventive approach to nonfiction form. Its narrative is regularly interrupted by avant-garde interstitials (or, in hip-hop terms, “breaks”) which juxtapose Stones Throw’s music with media collages, Stan Brakhage-style image paintings, animation sequences, home videos, and music videos. The approach doesn’t always work and occasionally compromises the film’s momentum. But it’s a laudable experiment that allows Stones Throw’s music to play through in a way that evocatively visualizes the label’s dedicated “underground” aesthetic. It’s a beautifully shot and realized combination of sound and image.
However, it’s difficult to ascertain what the film has to say about underground hip-hop, or music in general, beyond showcasing the compelling independent artists at Stones Throw. (It’s probably worth noting here that Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton is currently being promoted alongside a tour of Stones Throw mainstays.) For example, the film doesn’t provide a clear portrait of the various economic difficulties that independent record labels have incurred in the face of so many shifts in technology and the music industry since the 1990s (when Stones Throw was founded). But as a film about a team of people that develop an array of artists who wouldn’t otherwise find a place in a music market afraid of experimentation, Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton is a satisfying and resonant journey underground.