Wednesday 24 June 2020

Malpractice: "On the Record"

The story On the Record has to tell probably won't come as a complete surprise, just as the revelation that Harvey Weinstein was up to no good came as no real surprise to those with open eyes, ears and minds: its message is that there are things going on behind the scenes of the music industry that would chill the marrow of any reasonable observer. What's new is the insight the film provides into the processes by which such stories come to light. In November 2017, filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering sat down with Drew Dixon, a highly respected, since-retired A&R woman for Def Jam and Arista, to talk about her experiences in the rap game. For a while, her testimony yields the kind of anecdotes that would be manna for any celebratory Friday-night BBC4 doc. She gurgles with pride while recalling her first recorded shoutout (via Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, an act she signed); she discusses how she helped Puff Duffy decide on the Tammi Terrell sample that helped to make Method Man's Mary J. Blige collab "You're All I Need" what it was. Her credentials are impeccable. But note the date of the meeting: post-Weinstein, with the #MeToo hashtag beginning to circulate. Heed, too, the sporadic audioclips in which Def Jam boss Russell Simmons privately - but forcefully - indicates his preference for "tall, skinny bitches". Evidence is being assembled; a case is being made. We can but hope someone will answer for it, but equally we know now just what it takes for justice to be achieved.

What we'll watch, in these 95 minutes, is but the tip of an iceberg, both in terms of music-industry malpractice and the extent of the filmmaking: heaven knows how many hours were spent in lawyers' offices ensuring that the film was litigation-proof. (Simmons' response has been to go into retreat on the island of Bali, which - as On the Record notes in a waspish end-credit - has no extradition treaty to the United States. Weinstein must be kicking himself with his gammy leg.) Clearly, there was a degree of waiting around for Dixon's story to be factchecked and go to press, but the filmmakers use that time constructively, in the main. For one, they endeavour to ensure Simmons is viewed not as a solitary bad apple, but representative of a wider misogyny within the industry. Dick, exhibiting the same pop-cultural savvy he brought to 2006's This Film is Not Yet Rated, traces it at least as far back as the era of the Beatles and the Stones, although rap misogyny tends to strike the ear with more force than, say, Tom Jones boasting of slaying the errant Delilah. Context is everything here: I sensed Dixon had reached out to Dick and Ziering almost as a back-up - to allow her to get her story out to receptive, sympathetic listeners before she and the New York Times went public with her accusations - and there are clear reasons for this defensiveness. This case was further complicated by issues of race: Dixon is a light-skinned WOC, who joshes about "light privilege" but appears all too aware such privilege stretches only so far. As the author Michele Wallace puts it: "You're worried, as a Black woman, that you'll say something that will have consequences you hadn't anticipated - even down to calling the police." Dixon admits she was reluctant to describe Simmons as sexually aggressive because it might have been perceived as perpetuating a racial stereotype, but there were others - it turns out many, many others - who had similar, in some instances near-identical stories. There was more back-up than Dixon dared hope.

The film's strength resides in setting the viewer down alongside a rape survivor as her story goes live, develops, is debated in the court of public opinion: there's something fascinating, never prurient and hopefully emboldening in seeing how Dixon navigates her situation, doubles down or develops coping strategies, and finally draws her own strength from the realisation she wasn't as alone as she may first have thought. Equally, though, Dick and Ziering can't help but spot the toll these extremes of emotion take on a woman busy enough with the everyday work of living a life. We're right in the thick of it, which may explain why the structure gets a little ragged or wobbly in places. Evidently, this is a documentary that had to change shape to accommodate new voices coming forward, and doubtless suggestions from the legal department. (Oprah Winfrey had an executive-producer credit scrubbed after disagreements about the film's scope.) Yet On the Record is so focused on making the case against Simmons that it badly fumbles the Dixon biography. Having spent some while setting up marriage and motherhood as the route that allowed the film's subject to turn her back on the business and find renewed happiness, the final reel nonchalantly lets slip she's now divorced, a revelation to which the only possible response is: oh. Unintentionally, the film opens the door for a well-paid defence lawyer to argue a certain inconsistency of character, and for an ever-patient prosecutor to point out, once again, that erratic behaviour and a haphazard personal life can in themselves be proofs of injury. It's a pity, because there is an undeniable rhetorical force in hearing so much testimony, much of that corroborating, recounted at such close quarters. Here's a film about trauma - a trauma Dixon and her fellow plaintiffs would maintain is all too commonplace - which dares the viewer not to believe it.

On the Record will be available to stream from Friday.

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