On three different occasions, Dutch documentary maker, presenter, and director Bram van Splunteren captured an important bit of music history on film. His body of work in the 1980s and 1990s for Dutch public TV station VPRO is vast, but I wanted to highlight three important documentaries that also made a significant international impact.
In 1986 van Splunteren and interviewer Marcel Vanthilt traveled to New York to shoot a documentary about hip-hop culture. In Big Fun in the Big Town, the two venture into Harlem and the Bronx to interview artists like Doug E Fresh, Schoolly D, Roxanne Shante, and a budding 18 year old rapper named LL Cool J. The film is a unique snapshot of a pivotal moment for the music; the beginning of a golden era of hip-hop, where rap turned from an extension of disco and electro into a harder, more outspoken, more engaged sound, as it simultaneously entered the American mainstream consciousness with Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way.”
Over the years, van Splunteren maintained close relationships with several of his subjects, which led to him revisiting artists on film. A notable example was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who van Splunteren followed on their very first European Tour in 1988, and many times after. For a feature in 1994, van Splunteren was the only filmmaker with access to guitarist John Frusciante, who at that time had left the band, and was at an extremely low point in his life, reclusive and heavily addicted to cocaine and heroin as well as suffering from severe depression. The heart-wrenching interview shows a fragile Frusciante playing songs from his first solo album and talking about the pressures of fame. The broadcast sent shockwaves through RHCP fandom and, to this day, is one of the most sincere and vulnerable pieces about addiction and mental health struggles in the music world I have seen.
For a 1996 episode of music show Lola Da Musica, titled Drum ‘n Bass - the jazz of the 90s, van Splunteren filmed three exciting new UK acts: Squarepusher, Source Direct, and Photek. Like the two documentaries mentioned above, it shows the artists in their own spaces; in this case their bedroom studios. Van Splunteren demystifies the creative process by showing his subjects at work in a comfortable environment instead of focusing on touring and fame.
Another interesting thing about this documentary, and quite unique for that time period, is that it barely mentions drum ‘n’ bass in relation to club culture at all, and instead goes on to legitimize the emerging sound as a form of innovative music standing on its own. (There are a few jazz detours in the documentary, intended to hammer the comparison home.) There’s also a hilarious contrast between the artists’ preferences for fast, expensive cars and the sorry state of their living rooms. In any case, the film had a big influence on bedroom producers, evidenced by Joy Orbison’s nod to the documentary with his sampling of “we used to like.. do our own thing” on “Ellipsis” in 2012.