Two deaths punctuate Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton, the new, absurdist chronology of Peanut Butter Wolf and his beloved Stones Throw Records. Though J Dilla was widely known before signing to PBW‘s label and Charizma never made music under the imprint, the two talents’ respective passings mark the creation and recreation of what is perhaps music’s strangest family tree.
Charizma, a dear friend of Wolf’s, is endeared to us via glimpses into the goofy, profound bond the two shared. “Together forever,” they repeat to a disbelieving interviewer. The hurt is only more palpable, then, when he is taken from us. The early framing of Charizma as one of the film’s main protagonists makes Wolf’s increasing hunger for success in tragedy’s wake all the more understandable. We mourn in unison with Wolf, Our Vinyl‘s lone standing hero.
Out of what he calls a “desperate” need for his music with Charizma to be heard, Wolf forges onward and founds Stones Throw. Instead of launching into the rest of the label’s history, we jump to the present for vignettes of the label’s most impressive current artists. Homeboy Sandman ponders on and nails what makes Stones Throw special (“they find artists, they don’t create artists”); Jonwayne makes a beat from his Newton’s cradle, among other things; and Guilty Simpson and Jonti are spliced together as evidence of the label’s paradoxical roster.
Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton is a jovial exploration of how style and substance careen off one another. Weaving the sloppier elements (grainy old show and studio footage, bizarre montages) with crisper pieces (hi-def interviews, perfectly remastered snippets of Stones Throw classics), Broadway delivers a tangible story of immense, crisp talent with an overarching distaste for rules, regulations, and cleanliness.
The dirty flash of Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton justifies itself, frame after immaculate frame. The film is stuffed with gorgeous shots of vast, bustling record shops, the LA skyline, rollicking, dapper parties, and palm tree after palm tree. Each of the interview settings is intelligent and engaging, yet never distracting. Madlib is enthroned on leather, Earl Sweatshirt squirms in a wicker chair, and Kanye reclines on a pristine suede sofa, his marble relics clearly visible in the background.
One interview shot stands apart from the rest. The camera peers down from the ballroom ceiling, and we see a slim figure, slumped in silence, his head and black fedora angling toward the floor. This is Peanut Butter Wolf, in the wake of the film’s second pivotal loss: the passing of J Dilla. Though Donuts was the Detroit legend’s only solo release on Stones Throw during his lifetime, Dilla receives nearly as much screen time as the label’s crown jewel, Madlib, and double Charizma’s emotional fanfare. We are wrenched by an old video of Dilla being wheeled out on stage one last time, and sympathize with Madlib’s departure from hip-hop when his friend passes.
The central, lone Wolf is deeply affected, too. Post-Dilla, PBW is freed by grieving into the oddest planes of his artistic taste. Stones spirals into absurdity, and though director Broadway does not shy away from criticizing his subject, all criticism is done with a resilient trust in Wolf. “A lot of labels put out what they think will do well. Wolf presses his little brother’s punk brand,” we hear, before seeing that average-to-bad punk band in action.
With death acting so prominently as the film’s (and the label’s) engine, it seems Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton would come out a rather grim, even trudging piece. Luckily, the film never lacks energy, and often boasts consistent laughs. Among the most energizing moments are our glimpses into the film’s many subjects’ mutual love. It is hard not to be giddy as ?uestlove recounts Dilla telling him that Madlib’s music was over ?uest’s head, that the LA producer could only be making music for Dilla himself. The film works largely as a comedy as well: try not to laugh at Earl’s weird posture, Kanye’s description of Dilla’s drums (“like good pussy”), or Madlib’s description of the work process for Madvillainy: “The only thing we did together was a lot of chocolate shrooms.” One of the best, fullest laughs comes on slowly, as the poorly-wigged, off pitch Folerio makes his first appearance, and those of us who were unacquainted slowly realize…Folerio is Wolf! The sight of the otherwise unassuming Wolf in a shimmering black wig, missing high notes by miles is hilarious, but it is more. The moment serves as a testament to a man and his team willing to travel endlessly inward and onward in the name of creativity and strangeness. Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton is a triumph: it is Wolf’s eighteen years of sustained, twisted lightening, captured in a lightening-shaped bottle.
by Ben Sherak '16