Taking pride in their past

Hollywood diaries

There’s a scene in Top Five, the new film written by, directed by and starring Chris Rock, in which the action on the screen and the soundtrack are in perfect harmony, precisely because they’re at complete odds.

In the film, Rock plays Andre Allen, a stand-up comic turned film superstar who loathes the nature of his fame, based on goofy characters and catchphrases. He has a reality-TV-star fiance, a fragile grip on his sobriety and — desperate to be taken seriously — a vanity project about a Haitian slave uprising that’s about to torpedo his career. Over the course of a day, he tells his story to a journalist (played by Rosario Dawson) and tries to unearth the spark that was there before celebrity became an albatross.

Rock invited his longtime friend Questlove — of the Roots, house band of The Tonight Show — to serve as the film’s executive music producer. In a tiny room backstage at Tonight, the two men convened to talk about what they had in common and what they learned from each other. These are excerpts from the conversation:

I feel as if we’re not in an era of great soundtracks. With blaxploitation movies or the early hip-hop movies, there was a real symbiosis between music and film.
Rock: I don’t get the sense that white executives worship black music the way they used to.

Is it that they don’t or they don’t feel they have to? Diversity changed as a concept, from “We’re going to fund a black show” to “We’re going to have a mainstream show that has a black character.”

Rock: You know what it is, too? Back then, white people didn’t assume they knew about anything black, so they would hire black people to make all these decisions. Now it’s like, “Who knows more about blackness than me?” And you get what you get.

Questlove: The thing that drew me to this project was actually knowing that that really doesn’t exist anymore. The last time I really got this feeling was when I saw She’s Gotta Have It at 15. I knew it was the dawning of something unseen: the black art-house film. It was a historical watershed moment. He hates when I put this pressure on him, but I saw the Allenesque overtones — Annie Hall — in this film.

And this is your first actual collaboration.
Rock: This is definitely the first. I talked to you about maybe doing a record, and you were like, “No, you have to work with Prince Paul.”
Questlove: I missed out on those Grammys. But I enjoy speaking with him because he’s the only other black human being I know that is just a walking Smithsonian of information.

Just pure trivia?
Rock: I would say we both have that need, and you’re one of the only black artists I can talk to about art and not get caught up in the paper chase of it all — you and Kanye. It’s just like, “OK, let’s make something great.” I don’t meet a lot of brothers — or even white guys — that are on a quest for greatness.

Questlove: There’s a bond, Chris.
Rock: We both have domineering fathers. That taught us, more than anything, the value of work.

Was your father that tough on you?
Rock: My father was definitely Joe Jackson tough on me.
Questlove: My dad didn’t play that.
What about your kids?
Rock: I always say, my kids are so rich, when they watch Different Strokes, they side with Mr. Drummond. “What’s wrong with those kids? Don’t they know a good deal when they see it?”

Are your kids listening to Hot 97?
Rock: They try to. They listen to Z100.
Questlove: I’m seeing a pattern with millennial kids of black celebrities, how far removed they are from hip-hop.
They’re not into hip-hop?

Rock: It’s not central to who they are. I went to a block party in Bed-Stuy a couple years ago, I remember a bunch of black kids singing along to Miley Cyrus, Party in the USA. In Bed-Stuy!

Questlove:I got hired for my first bar mitzvah five weeks ago. I’m neurotic, so I did meticulous interviewing with all these Jewish kids here, all the interns. I came in prepared, and wouldn’t you know I got there and it was a black bar mitzvah? I had nothing but 5 Seconds of Summer and Taylor Swift, and I had to scrap everything and get clean Nicki, clean Wayne, clean Drake. He was like, “They didn’t tell you I was black?”
Can a movie like Top Five no longer be done in the studio system?

Rock: There’d have been a lot of fights. Because it’s really black, but not necessarily about race. It’s hard to get white people to agree to do anything black that doesn’t have to do with race. That’s why white people don’t get R&B, ‘cause there’s no struggle in it. And the movie kind of operates on that level. In a normal movie, I go back to the projects and people hate me, ‘cause in every other black movie the richest person is the villain.
Questlove: I was wondering why you weren’t getting any hate (when his character returns to his old neighbourhood). Like, wow, you can just come back.

Rock: ‘Cause he’s there all the time! It’s no different than a doctor going back. You got aunts! You got cousins! My father’s buried in the Evergreens Cemetery on Bushwick Avenue. So, everybody knows they’re going to see me on Father’s Day. Everybody knows they’re going to see me around Christmas.

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