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The 13th Tribeca Film Festival kicked off Wednesday with Nas documentary Time is Illmatic, directed by multimedia artist and first-time director One9.
The film — which premiered at New York’s Beacon Theater — chronicles the rapper’s journey from the Queens projects to the debut of his 1994 record Illmatic, widely considered one of the best rap albums of all time.
“The nature of the subject is about surviving and thriving,” said Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal. “That’s what New York did post-9/11,” when Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff held the first Tribeca fest. “And that’s what Nas has done in his career. It’s about bridging cultures and bridging communities — that’s what his work is about.”
The film — compiled from first-person interviews, snapshots and old concert footage — captures the grit of 1980s and ‘90s New York, offering insight into the economic conditions, drug epidemic, rampant violence, and poor public infrastructure that inspired Nas’s signature blend of street lyricism and provocative imagery.
“If you look at conditions then and now, not much has changed for the people Nas represented. But so much has changed in the world,” said Time is Illimatic writer/producer Erik Parker. “What was important for us to tell is that Nas is a genius, but he’s one of just a few that made it out.”
But Nas didn’t readily partake in the film, and only decided to join once the movie — supported with grants and mentoring by the Tribeca Film Institute — was in the final stages of completion.
“It was hard,” the 40-year-old rapper said of opening up to the documentary cameras. “But I’m happy I did. I’m forever grateful.”
After the screening, Nas gave an energetic performance of tracks from Illmatic. Alicia Keys thrilled the crowd with a guest appearance, and at one point during the nine-track set, Nas brought his younger brother Jabari and his two small nephews onto the stage.
This year marks the second time Tribeca has opened with a music-themed selection and concert, offering a hint as to what may become integral to the festival’s long-term identity, said Tribeca co-founder Craig Hatkoff.
“We’re beginning to see whether we continue opening every year with a music film and performance,” said Hatkoff. “We like to keep it fresh, but I do love this format. It’s exciting, it’s New York.”
The choice of the Beacon Theater also showcased the festival’s new partnership with the Madison Square Garden Company, which recently purchased 50 percent of festival operating company Tribeca Enterprises.
“The fact we’re here at the Beacon is great,” said De Niro, noting the Beacon is a property owned by MSG. “I’ve seen so many plays and music performances here over the years and so it’s a perfect place to open with this movie.”
It was an evening that showcased the beginning of a new chapter for the Tribeca Film Festival — but for Nas, it signaled the end of one too.
“I think when it originally came out, I was so out of it — like, gone. I was in this party state where I didn’t get the chance to enjoy most of it,” admitted Nas of Illmatic‘s April 1994 release. “Now I enjoy it a lot more.”
Check out the trailer for Time is Illmatic below.