Director: Shaul Schwarz
3 (out of 5) Globes
In the 1990s, gangsta rappers were taken to task for what was seen as a glorification of violence. In reality, many of the musicians were much more ambivalent, even negative, about their subject matter, adopting personas to reveal the grim realities of life on the street. “Narcoculture” is a whole other beast. A massive industry throughout Mexico and the American Southwest, its singers unambiguously — and thoughtlessly — glorify Mexican cartel members as badass gangsters. Where some gangster rappers actually came from the street, these musicians do it from a safe remove.
“Narco Culture,” a visually stunning and calmly gutting documentary, hops back and forth between musicians and the life they only think they know. In Los Angeles, one Edgar Quintero enjoys a profitable life performing a genre too profitable to be successfully outlawed. Quintero takes bazookas on stage and brandishes gun imagery on his clothes while singing of killing everybody.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border rages a brutal drug war that, between 2006 and 2012, has killed 60,000 people, with no sign of abating. The border town of Juarez has seen the brunt of the damage. (El Paso, which faces it, is by contrast the safest city in America.) Officers — or the few who haven’t been gorily dispatched — no longer even try to police it; they just drive to pick up headless bodies or heads with notes attached. Few murders go investigated.
Director ShaulSchwarz forcefully — perhaps too forcefully, or at least repetitively — makes the distinction between Quintero’s glamorized take on cartel life and the Boschian hellscape it actually causes. Quintero isn’t completely uninvolved: He is often commissioned by cartel members for new songs, to which they then rock out. When he decides his work could use more grit, Quintero obliviously talks of taking a vacation down there for research, leading to him hanging with cold-blooded killers. The respect is mutual.
Schwarz lets the juxtaposition between the two sides do most of the editorializing, which is enough. He keeps hanging with Quintero, as though waiting for him to have an epiphany, or to simply test the theory that he’s really and truly thick. It’s a better piece of reportage when on the south side of the border, where Schwarz keeps digging deeper and deeper into the drug war, which not only has no end in sight but is in fact getting worse. A lot of documentaries are hopeless, but here — with a purely observational and clinical approach — the despair and lack of optimism becomes a kind of sick joke.