‘Cypher’ Review: This Metafictional Rap Documentary Is ‘Jeen-Yuhs’ Meets ‘The Da Vinci Code’
After the brief introduction for new fans, “Cyper” follows Whack as she records a new album and plots a subsequent world tour. The presence of Moukarbel and his documentary crew is always acknowledged, as carefully curated moments of Whack denying or allowing them access to various meetings lays the foundation for the media commentary that eventually emerges.
One night, the documentarians are contacted by a rabid fan who they had previously filmed approaching Whack in a diner. The encounter alerts Whack and her management team to the presence of an online community who are obsessed with finding Freemason imagery in Whack’s lyrics and music videos.
Whack initially dismisses the conspiracies as the typical fan nonsense that every major celebrity eventually has to deal with. She ignores the YouTube videos that are beginning to emerge about her alleged Freemason connections and hits the road for a tour. But the threats become more ominous, with members of her team receiving disturbing packages and fans making blatant threats to her safety on social media. Soon she’s cancelling performances in Dubai and hemorrhaging employees until the documentary crew agrees to meet with her main stalker.
From the layered dishonesty of “F for Fake” to the ridiculousness of “This Is Spinal Tap,” each decade of filmmakers finds a way to put its own spin on the fictional documentary. The great innovation of “Cypher” is the way Whack and Moukarbel understand how the music doc and found footage thriller are complimentary formats. The minimalistic production value required of the anti-Whack conspiracy videos and the “interview” that is eventually shot with her stalker allow one format to morph into the other before we fully have a chance to understand what is happening.
The only real downside is that “Cypher” never fully commits to abandoning its documentary roots. The climactic encounter that much of the film seems to be building toward is something of a disappointment, with the filmmakers opting to offer a softer commentary about how much control celebrities ultimately have over their own narratives. (An early scene where Whack’s producers debate Arthur Fleck’s reliability as a narrator in “Joker” is a not-so-subtle skeleton key to understanding the film.) The film’s concerns with disinformation and obsessive fans collide in a way that illustrates the deal with the devil that artists implicitly sign when they use the Internet to scale up their fanbase.
While the bulk of the information presented about Whack’s music career is accurate, “Cypher” is certainly not a true introduction to the rapper and her artistry. But whether you’re a longtime listener or simply a documentary enthusiast seeking a break from the predictable monotony of musician profiles, “Cypher” is an experience worth seeking out. Whack’s obvious charisma and willingness to embrace unorthodox media formats suggest that she’s perfectly capable of building an exciting film career without a vast network of Freemasons doing her dirty work.
“Cypher” opens in select theaters and streams on Hulu on Friday, November 24.
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