New York’s Tribeca film festival has opened with the premiere of Time Is Illmatic, a documentary about the creation of US rapper Nas’s landmark 1994 debut album, Illmatic.
Nas, a Queens native, followed the screening at the Beacon Theatre with a performance of the nine-track album, widely considered a rap classic for its angry but earnest street poetry.
Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro introduced the film on Wednesday as not just about the making of an album, but “about the making of an artist here in our hometown”.
Whereas many films about an album have stuck largely to the song-writing process and track recording, Time Is Illmatic, directed by One9, summons the Queensbridge housing projects upbringing of Nas and the forces – his parents, 1980s Queens, early hip-hop – that shaped his music.
The movie takes to heart the rapper’s lyric, “Now let me take a trip down memory lane/ Comin’ outta Queensbridge.”
“I was trying to make you experience my life,” Nas says of the album in the film. Later he adds: “It’s still me.”
Performing afterward (with some help from Alicia Keys on piano), Nas appeared to be inspired by the recollection of his roots. He rapped emotionally with a constant flow of gratitude for his family, friends and collaborators, calling them out in the front rows of the audience.
Nas pulled his brother, Jabari (also known as “Jungle”) and young nephews up on stage for one song. He joked that his brother, a wry and candid voice throughout the film, was “the star of the movie”.
Nas thanked Tribeca (the Tribeca Film Institute helped produce the film) and remarked that De Niro, famous for his New York touch guy roles, “plays me in all his movies”.
Tribeca has often turned to music to energise its festival. Recent opening nights have featured Elton John (Cameron Crowe’s “The Union”) and the National (“Mistaken For Strangers”).
This year’s slate is full of music-themed films, including documentaries on James Brown (Alex Gibney’s untitled film), Bjork (“Bjork: Biophilia Live”), Alice Cooper (“Super Duper Alice Cooper”), the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir (“The Other One”) and jazz trumpeter Clark Terry (“Keep on Keepin’ On”).
Tribeca, which runs until April 27, will close with Begin Again, a film about a music executive (Mark Ruffalo) and a young singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley). It is directed by John Carney, who made the film Once.
But Nas and Time Is Illmatic opened Tribeca on a distinctly New York note, one struck two decades ago by a kid from the projects, and still reverberating.
“Whoever you are,” Nas told the audience, “you can be anything.”