C.J. Wallis talks Mac Miller, new projects, and how he connected with Curren$y
During a relatively tame performance at 2011's Rock The Bells in Los Angeles, New Orleans-based rapper and JetLife CEO, Curren$y, stepped off the stage to greet his legion of fans.
As he stepped down, he tangled his foot in speaker wires and cracked his ankle in three places. Ignoring the pain, Curren$y jumped a barrier to get even closer to the crowd and broke it again in another 8 places. He finished his set and hopped off stage to go to the emergency room. "That was my first day on the job," said C.J. Wallis, JetLife's creative director. "They jumped in a van and took off and just sort of left me there. I realize now I was just the filmmaker for the day, but at the time I felt like Scorsese going to film The Last Waltz." Despite being disappointed by how the day had gone, Wallis realized he was the only one with footage of the performance, and he tracked the rapper down. He met up with a member of Curren$y's team at the hospital and talked for hours in the waiting room while they awaited news. "I felt like I fell into the family right away."
10 years later, Wallis has established himself as a sought-after creative icon in the Hip-Hop industry. He has curated visuals for everyone from Fiend to Wiz Khalifa and Ty Dolla $ign, and has crafted an infinite amount of content for the JetLife CEO himself, including album covers, documentaries, and of course, music videos. "JetLife is like a football team that just functions really well," Wallis said. He's also filmed a plethora of feature films. His last documentary, The Perfect Bid, which tells the story of "The Price is Right" superfan Ted Slauson, went on to win Best Documentary at the Orlando Film Festival.
While Hip-Hop's inner circle knows Wallis well, the general public was first introduced to him when he announced his intention to film a Mac Miller documentary earlier this month. "So, over the next year I'm going to start collecting interviews & content to make the definitive Mac Miller documentary for his family, friends & fans," Wallace tweeted on June 3. The tweet made headlines everywhere, and fans of the late rapper took it to be confirmation that the project was underway. Later that day, Wallace retracted the statement after speaking respectfully with Miller's estate. "To say that I was putting it together in any sense is a bit crazy, really all I did was message 4 or 5 people," Wallis said. "I know what my intention was, but what was frustrating was the family getting hounded by the headlines. The tweet was never a pitch. Maybe I worded it wrong initially, but I didn't think I would have to justify it in this way two weeks later."
We heard back from @christianclancy & The Estate who said the family has requested we hold off on the project at th… https://t.co/qlIrgDbm5c— FORTYFPS FILMS (@FORTYFPS FILMS)1559664043.0
Fans accused Wallis of mishandling the artist's legacy, and the director realized the quickest way to quell the growing backlash was to initiate conversations with the disappointed fans. "I'm a public company, so when someone has something to say about me or my work I wanna know about it," Wallis said. He found that the more he engaged, the quicker the trolls began to understand and back down. "People like to start stuff on the internet thinking there are no repercussions, and I wasn't gonna get steamrolled by the internet over good intentions."
The blowback reignited a contentious debate surrounding creative liberties taken with posthumous artists. Who should be allowed to detail an artist's legacy? Do posthumous releases benefit the memory of an artist or are they just cash grabs? XXXTENTACION's album SKINS was highly publicized before its release but was deemed by critics as an "aimless" and "structurally unsound" project that did more harm to his legacy than good. Avicii's posthumous release, TIM, received similar backlash, as it was released by the same label who Avicii's step-father says pushed the DJ to suicide. Mac Miller's first song since his passing premiered last week. "When Prince died there were three months where there was no copyright over him, and everyone was just cashing in on the dude," said Wallis. "So when someone passes away, it should be up to the family or whoever is in charge to decide [what to do next."
For now, Wallis is ready to put the experience behind him and get back to work. He is currently working on his next film, Frank Flood, a narrative feature surrounding the early days of the infomercial world. Despite it all, Wallis still feels confident in his ability to tell Mac Miller's story when the time is right for all parties involved. "I have a certain way I approach my projects that come from a very unjudgemental [sic] and compassionate point of view," Wallis said. "[Mac Miller's] story definitely deserves that."
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The blowback against CJ Wallis asks a bigger question for documentarians when discussing deceased artists.
"So, over the next year I'm going to start collecting interviews & content to make the definitive Mac Miller documentary," filmmaker CJ Wallis tweeted Monday afternoon. His preemptive announcement was quickly dismissed by Mac Miller's family. Consequently, Wallis deleted his initial tweet and tried to backtrack.
"We felt comfortable announcing our intentions in advance of receiving permission because they were just that–intentions," said Wallis. The blowback from fans was almost instantaneous. "I saw your absolute trash apology," wrote someone on Twitter. "You're not sorry at all. Anybody with half a brain would of [sic] known that even 'posting intentions' WITHOUT PERMISSION is a 100% NO GO." Instead of sympathizing with fan's frustrations, Wallis continued to add fuel to the fire, responding to many of the criticisms with the same excuse: that the fans misinterpreted his initial announcement. "Don't support this shit," wrote another Twitter user. "Y'all rushing everything with this man...Let shit like this be done right."
We felt comfortable announcing our intentions in advance of receiving permission because they were just that - inte… https://t.co/JZ1Vt6TVd7— FORTYFPS FILMS (@FORTYFPS FILMS)1559664043.0
It's true that documenting a pop icon's legacy is a tricky business, and it's been done many times without the best interest of the artist or their loved ones in mind. Avicii's posthumous third album, Tim, is set for release this Thursday and will be put out by the same executives that Avicii's step-father, Tommy Korberg, says pushed his step-son towards suicide. In the grim documentary Avicii: True Stories, the DJ aired multiple frustrations about his rigorous tour schedule and said the industry heads in charge refused to pull back. "I have said, like, I'm going to die," Avicii tells the camera, exhausted.
The curation of hip-hop documentaries has similarly been mishandled in the past. Michael Rapaport—a 49-year-old white actor who often posts long-form Instagram rants about rappers and who recently ignited a feud with Meek Mill after calling him "trash"—faced allegations of misrepresentation from Q-Tip after Rapaport's Tribe Called Quest documentary purposefully overdramatized Tip and Phife Dawg's tumultuous relationship. Rapaport also allegedly snubbed the group out of producer credit. "He was breaking my balls," Rapaport said of Tip's criticism, alleging that the group was hardly involved in the film and only wanted a producer credit after the movie was wrapped. "We had already agreed on profit shares...but I didn't want them to be a producer on the movie."
While Rapaport's movie was well-received, the controversy surrounding it posed a bigger question about what level of accuracy and respect filmmakers should be held to when discussing an artist's legacy, especially if said artist tragically passed away. Rapaport said the film was his creation and that the group was rarely consulted during filming. "I won't even say who the producer is cause it doesn't matter," said Rapaport in response to the allegations. "[The producer] is a good dude, he's a black dude. It wasn't some evil Jewish producer trying to fuck over the poor black hip-hop guys." Even though Tribe received fair profit shares, is that a good enough reason to justify a filmmaker spinning someone else's story however they want?
The controversial documentary Leaving Neverland, which explores the child abuse allegations against Michael Jackson, was similarly dismissed by Jackson's Estate as defamatory prior to release. The narrative of accuser James Safechuck was called into question after he said Jackson raped him in the "train station" on the Neverland ranch between 1988 and 1992, despite the station not being built until 1993. Director Dan Reed defended the validity of Safechuck's accusations, saying these claims did not clash with Safechuck's initial claims, and he was actually at Neverland both before and after the station's construction. After the allegation was called into question, Oprah Winfrey removed her interview with accusers Safechuck and Wade Robeson from her YouTube channel. Jackson's Estate announced that they are opening a $100 million lawsuit against HBO as a result of the documentary.
Yet, for both Rapaport and Reed, their work was well-received upon initial release. Both films were deemed as accurate depictions of the subjects they covered, even without the artist or their family's approval. Leaving Neverland was lauded upon release as well researched and carefully constructed, with critics calling the film "chillingly credible," among other things. Despite the film's heavy-handed focus on A Tribe Called Quest's inner turmoil, Rapaport's Beats Rhymes & Life was equally praised for its depiction of the group despite their minimal input. "Somewhat against the odds, Rapaport manages to parlay his access and sycophancy into the plaint of a concerned fan," wrote The Boston Globe. So why does the CJ Wallis blowback feel different? Could it be because he didn't initially allow for Miller's family to have an opinion? What are the rules filmmakers should follow when discussing the life of an artist?
"Again, please read the initial tweet," CJ Wallis tweeted in response to fans' frustrations over Mac Miller's documentary. "No one put out anything. Nothing was shot. No progress was ever made. I had barely even got up from my desk between the original tweet suggesting the idea and asking for contacts & speaking with clancy/their estate." But is it fair to say we collectively misinterpreted Wallis's announcement? His Tweet spawned multiple headlines from every reputable hip-hop publication: "Mac Miller Documentary Confirmed," read XXL.
again, please read the initial tweet. no one put out anything. nothing was shot. no progress was ever made. i had… https://t.co/eJYxTBL6oX— FORTYFPS FILMS (@FORTYFPS FILMS)1559688200.0
In a written statement, Wallis said of the backlash: "What crushes me about this most is that the family has had to endure any & everything additional this has caused them...it makes me sick to know this added to all the negative." He went on to blame "sensationalized headlines" for the overall misinterpretation, once again shifting the blame. While no one is questioning Wallis's qualifications for such a project, according to his website, Wallis never even worked with Mac Miller. It's human to get overly excited about something before all the pieces fall into place, but the director's refusal to acknowledge his role in all this miscommunication is admittedly problematic. Even so, can we blame him for wanting to use his art to tell the story of a beloved artist? What rules did he break that Rapaport and Reed did not? Who gets to tell an icon's story when they are no longer around to tell it themselves?
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