Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Carola Dibbell
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BANNED IN THE U.S.A. (1990)

***

With Luke Featuring the 2 Live Crew.
Directed by Penelope Spheeris.
(A*Vision Entertainment, color, 45 mins., $14.95).

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

The censorship campaign that dogs the 2 Live Crew has culminated in the disappearance of their albums from many chains and their arrest in Florida for performing sexually explicit material before an audience of consenting adults. But defending the Miami rappers has been a less than soul-satisfying crusade. Too often the genital, do-it-till-it-hurts focus of the group's sexual message is in fact misogynistic, though the line is rarely as clear as the prudes who persecute them claim.

So we were excited to learn that Penelope Spheeris had directed this rock-doc. The two installments of Spheeris's Decline of Western Civilization, on L.A. punk and glam metal, have proven her a canny, unjudgmental interviewer with a taste for the tawdry and excessive and a gift for getting self-styled rebels to trust her. We anticipated a document that gave the group its due without concealing the contradictions and weirdnesses underneath. But Banned in the U.S.A. has the look of a money gig. Except for one yawning Crew member, Spheeris's camera sticks to the surface--civil libertarians and other interested parties reciting standard defenses to bigoted fulminations--and her questions never give leader Luke Campbell the rope to hang himself. On hand to film a riot that ensued when the Crew refused to play until paid, she even goes so far as to feed them socially responsible responses.

But to our surprise, 2 Live come alive on video. Campbell is something of a visionary, or at least someone who's had vision thrust upon him--a wry, lucid, genuinely broad-minded fellow. The slapdash crudity of the generously excerpted promo clips is a relief in 1990. And the trouble-making "Me So Horny" seems a lot jollier and more ribald--a lot less "nasty"--in front of an interracial audience of men and women who are getting what they paid for.

Video Review, Aug. 1990