'Rock Rubber 45s': Film Review

One victory lap too many.
6/28/2018

Hip-hop multi-hyphenate Bobbito Garcia makes his third documentary a full-on autobiography.

Late in the memoir-doc Rock Rubber 45s, self-styled Renaissance man Bobbito Garcia recalls the numerous times he "committed career suicide," stepping away from one hot gig or another just as things were at their peak. With this, his third documentary, the athlete/DJ/professional sneaker-head has missed the moment to jump ship on the filmmaker chapter of his life: having co-directed one well-received look at neighborhood basketball and one feature-length encomium praising his own radio show, this outing finds Garcia patting himself on the back so much he might ruin his arm for any future return to basketball or record-spinning. Though enjoyable as it touches on some of the liveliest scenes in New York City's recent pop-culture history, the doc's appeal is greatly limited by Garcia's blinkered perspective on his own life.

"I am simultaneously a DJ, a ball player, a TV and radio personality, a writer, an author, announcer, a coach, a filmmaker, a shoe designer," Garcia explains at the start of the film, and for some time, his autobiographical approach here shows promise. Born in 1966 to two Puerto Ricans living in New York (cutely, they were named Ramon and Ramona), he was surrounded by music at home and found his social circle on neighborhood basketball courts.

"I sucked," he admits of his first stabs at the game. But Bobbito felt pushed to hoops by bullies at school (his brother denies he was ever bullied), and soon he was ditching class to play with strangers in Bed-Stuy. He might've flunked out, had an acquaintance not recommended him to a program that sent at-risk kids to posh boarding schools; from there, he went to Wesleyan. (Cue a quick appearance by Wesleyan alum Lin-Manuel Miranda, who praises the freestyling on the radio show Garcia would later co-host.)

The film lingers strangely on Garcia's athletic disappointments at college, where coaches failed to appreciate his talents. As he recounts one especially painful rejection — "Why did I not start that game, bro? Why?!" — moviegoers may begin to wish they were in the hands of a filmmaker with some distance from the subject.

Soon, though, we're on to happier topics. Garcia graduated and found work at Def Jam Recordings, where he graduated from errand boy to promo rep in part because he helped get radio time for his buddies in 3rd Bass. Kevin Liles, who later became the label's president, claims Garcia could have worked his way up to that job himself, but instead he resigned, for reasons left (like several other things in this film) frustratingly vague.

The film watches as Garcia skips from one influential spot to the next. He co-hosted " The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show," which gave pre-fame airtime to Nas, the Notorious B.I.G., and Jay-Z. (As the title of Garcia's last film modestly described the show: Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives.) He hosted sets at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and seems to give himself credit for the later success of the Def Poetry Jam. (The Nuyorican Poets Cafe opened when Garcia was 6 years old and remains open today, but a viewer might walk away thinking it was Garcia's brainchild.) And in 1991, The Source magazine ran his "Confessions of a Sneaker Addict" article, an influential expression of addiction to fancy kicks. He would later open a closet-sized sneaker boutique that other sneaker-head entrepreneurs would credit as a precursor to their own successes; but his own store failed in 2000.

The film's storytelling starts to get muddled around this point, hopping back in time to explain this or that next chapter in Garcia's very active life. The presence of famous friends and admirers — not just Miranda, but Rosie Perez, Michael Rapaport, Questlove and Chuck D — makes it clear that Garcia isn't overstating the fun to be had at the nightclub dance parties and Stevie Wonder tributes he went on to host or co-host. And Garcia's own happy energy makes him good company even for a not-quite-convinced viewer. But especially in the last 20 minutes, Rock Rubber 45s feels like a video assembled for somebody's lifetime-achievement-award ceremony. Here's hoping that, having taken a couple of self-directed victory laps, Bobbito can now get back to pointing people toward good music and good times.

Production company: Omar Acosta Productions
Distributor: Saboeur Media
Director: Bobbito Garcia
Producer: Omar Acosta
Executive producers: David Kennedy, Nick Quested
Director of photography: Christian Pollock
Editors: Raafi Rivero, Emir Lewis

96 minutes