Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton (This Is Stones Throw Records): LAFF Review

Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton - P - 2013
This is a heartfelt but shallow tribute to a Los Angeles indie record label.

This documentary about hip hop and alternative label Stones Throw Records had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Music documentaries have become a popular mini-genre. Often these films have their world premieres at film festivals, and a few of them -- like last year’s Oscar winner, Searching for Sugar Man, and the new release, 20 Feet from Stardom -- achieve box office success. But the field is so crowded that it’s hard for many of these films to break from the pack. The latest of these entries, which had its premiere at LAFF over the weekend, is Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, the story of Los Angeles-based independent label Stones Throw Records. Although the film is made with skill and a lot of affection, it’s far too specialized to attract any kind of substantial theatrical audience.

The founder of the label, Chris Manak, grew up in the San Jose area. He struck up a friendship with a young black artist known as Charizma, and they decided to form their own record label to concentrate on hip hop music. Charizma was killed at the age of 20, and in a sense Manak -- who adopted the name Peanut Butter Wolf -- wanted to keep the music going as a tribute to his friend. Manak is one of a number of young white men fascinated by black culture, though this is a phenomenon the film might have probed more deeply. In fact, the whole picture is disappointingly superficial in its characterizations of Manak and all of the musicians depicted in the film. It isn’t until late in the movie that we learn Manak has a wife, but we discover nothing about their relationship or about the personalities of the principals.

The film is intended as more of a tribute to the maverick record label, and well-known artists like Common, Kanye West and Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys -- along with many performers who are not so well known -- praise Manak’s integrity. Although Stones Throw Records began to promote hip hop, it eventually released many different kinds of alternative music. The company has had its ups and downs, with desperately lean years giving way to a somewhat more successful vibe today, but the company has never truly abandoned its funky roots or its commitment to challenging music.

Director Jeff Broadway has put together an appealing collage, which incorporates interviews, musical excerpts and even some inventive bits of animation to tell the story. The problem with the movie is that it doesn’t offer enough human insight to compel the attention of viewers who are not familiar with the mainly obscure musical groups highlighted here. There’s a small fan base that will embrace the movie, but the picture is too thin to travel far beyond minor cult status.

Director: Jeff Broadway.

Screenwriters: Robert Bralver, Jeff Broadway.

Producers: Jeff Broadway, Sebastian Bauer, Lucas Blaya.

Executive producer: Jason McGuire.

Directors of photography: Jordan Haro, Isaac Sterling, Lucas Blaya.

Music: Madlib.

Editor: Robert Bralver.

No rating, 93 minutes