'69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez': Film Review

Courtesy of HULU
A fine primer on a rap star the world could probably do without.

'Barry' director Vikram Gandhi chronicles the outrageous career of rapper/troll Tekashi69 in this Hulu doc.

The lame-duck days of America's reality-TV presidency are an appropriate time for a documentary about Tekashi69, the rainbow-haired rapper willing to say or do any stupid thing in order to keep the world's eyes on him. In the view of Vikram Gandhi's 69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez, music is nearly entirely beside the point: Those who don't know the songs that drew millions of YouTube streams will barely hear them here, and that's probably just as well. What they'll get instead is a clear-eyed take on a chaotic life, in which some of those closest to Hernandez try to give a sense of the man behind the Insta-outrageousness. Still, even Gandhi (maker of 2016's Obama-early-years feature Barry) admits that what he hoped would be a cautionary tale is probably just one more way for the infamous celeb to get the attention he craves.

Gandhi's project began with the realization that the rapidly gentrifying part of Brooklyn in which he lives was also the locus for the gang-related stuff that earned Hernandez time in prison. Though managers for Hernandez (probably best known by the annoying-to-type moniker 6ix9ine) refused to cooperate, it was easy to get access to locals the rapper abandoned along his path to stardom. Especially helpful is Shadow the Great, whose music collective Loaf gave Daniel Hernandez a home before he'd ever held a mic.

Back then, Hernandez first drew attention for putting his own social media-savvy spin on a timeworn idea: He wrote naughty things on his clothes. Wearing hats and jerseys emblazoned with "HIV" or "PUSSY" was enough to get the kid a wave of likes, but he had no interest in manufacturing these to sell. Instead, he wanted to be on stage.

Though the string of characters involved may jumble together a bit, Gandhi charts a pretty clear course for the newly christened Takashi69 as he latches on to various music-world figures, each of whom had more followers, street cred or skill. Some, like Spanish Harlem rapper Bodega Bamz, are clearly nonjudgmental of his careerist ladder-climbing; others were victimized by it. Trippie Redd, a rapper with connections to music-biz bigwigs, recorded a hit song with 6ix9ine but was later assaulted amid a very public beef with him. (Redd had publicized Hernandez's felony conviction for filming sex acts with a 13 year-old.)

Gandhi provides just enough pop-culture context to keep viewers from getting lost even if the words "SoundCloud rap" mean nothing to them; in fact, newbies may walk away with an illusory feeling that they understand the scene. What's easy to comprehend fully is Hernandez's instinct for getting attention. He dyed his hair using every shade available, tattooed his face, wore grillz and rented Lamborghinis. His videos were like parodies of strip-club misogyny, and his Instagram feed was textbook trolling. Then came the Bloods.

While it can be hard to say which subjects here are actual criminals and which are just gang-adjacent, Gandhi shows how this son of a Mexican immigrant wound up attaching himself to a mostly Black group aligned with the Bloods gang. 6ix9ine used real gangsters (and a cartoonish number of red bandanas) in his video for "Gummo" and, as the movie tells it, came to see the value of having real-world muscle to back up his online trash-talk. He paired with a manager named Shotti, who interviewees say embodied "the dark side" of the rap/crime overlap, and it wasn't long before he was putting out a hit on a rival and being targeted himself.

Lest this colorful narrative ever get completely cartoonish, Gandhi returns frequently to Sara Molina, who became Hernandez's girlfriend pre-fame and had a daughter with him. Though she's clearly suffered from being a bystander to his lifestyle (near the end, Molina reveals that he beat her for years), her continued presence reminds the viewer of what attracted this seemingly smarter, more privileged woman to a funny, energetic and driven kid. Whether there's anything left of that kid, or he was consumed by the disease of celebrity, is a question the film can't really answer. It's not entirely clear that we should care.

Production companies: Gunpowder & Sky, Prophets
Distributor: Hulu
Director: Vikram Gandhi
Producers: Vikram Gandhi, Jeremy Falson, Jude Harris
Executive producers: Van Toffler, Floris Bauer, David Gale
Directors of photography: Vikram Gandhi, Ryan Francis White
Editor: Cameron Dennis
Composers: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans

102 minutes