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Drop the Needle Review: The Beats of a City

2023 Kingston Canadian Film Festival

5 mins read

Drop the Needle
(Canada, 113 min.)
Dir. Rob Freeman

 

Audiences with an affinity for vinyl should sit back and let the record spin. Drop the Needle chronicles the history of an unofficial Toronto landmark, Play De Record. The record store, established by Trinidadian-Canadian entrepreneur Eugene Tam in August 1990, brought a variety of beats to Yonge Street. This energetic feature documentary debut by Rob Freeman salutes a stalwart in a changing business. Although Play De Record now stands on Spadina Avenue, the film uses the occasion of its 2016 move to reflect upon the role that brick-and-mortar independent businesses play as the beating pulse of the city. As Tam and his family pack up the many, many, many boxes of records in their store, they’re joined by an extensive array of DJs who testify to the store’s significance in shaping the sounds of Toronto.

Drop the Needle has a lot of fun recapping the sketchy nature of Tam’s enterprise. Interviewees recall finding their way to the musical mecca by cutting through a general store that sold porno mags and chewing gum. Located next door to strip club staple Zanzibar, the film positions it at the epicentre of Yonge St. seediness. But Freeman also suggests that the store was perfectly positioned as a hub for alternative voices.

 

Mixing and Sampling

DJs, for example, remember the weekly ritual of new releases. Every Thursday, disc jockeys would descend upon Play De Record to get the latest freshly pressed albums. The interviewees playfully speak of a pecking order as everyone elbowed the competition to grab the top beats. But there’s an overriding air of camaraderie to the conversation. The interviewees note how Tam’s store offered a site of exchange. DJs could share the work of new artists with their fellow Torontonians and, through this gathering place, highlight their own artistry in mixing, sampling, and scratching the best beats.

The expansive conversations also highlight how Tam’s store fostered the culture of mix tapes that let DJs and fans share music that spoke to them. The film unpacks the politics of mix tapes and the might of record producers who sought influential DJs to share hot tracks on their personal mixes. The film shares how Tam’s store offered one-stop shopping for a snapshot of the Toronto music scene with mix tapes as hot commodities. Pre-Napster, though, Tam’s story speaks to the thorny legal issues people encounter when trying to find a balance between sharing fresh music and enjoying commercial success by cutting mixes.

 

Many, Many Talking Heads

Admittedly, one does wish that Drop the Needle followed the DJs’ mode of sampling. The doc impressively features over 50 interviewees among its cast. With dozens of DJs, producers, and artists, including DJ-turned-comedian Russell Peters, Drop the Needle makes clear that Play De Record leaves an indelible mark on Toronto. At the same time, the repetitive unanimity of the talking heads drags.

The film’s opening sequence, moreover, makes clear that audiences are in for a little redundancy amid the celebration. An introductory montage highlights all the speakers who will appear in the ensuing hour and fifty minutes. All of them. As the montage goes on and on, the film immediately signals a long haul to come.

A tighter edit would probably do this story greater justice. The exhaustive array of speakers, while impressive and admirable, simply proves exhausting. Moreover, the subject matter could have invited some playful cutting and mixing of the interviews. What DJs do with songs, editors can do for documentaries. There’s a punchier version of this film to be made, although one must respect Freeman’s choice to reflect the range of Torontonians shaped by the store. For a film that directly tackles one store’s ability to afford diverse voices a platform, Drop the Needle does exactly that. It honours the spirit of Tam’s story through and through.

 

Drop the Needle screened at the 2023 Kingston Canadian Film Festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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