Been Reading, Watching, Listening: 2003

Harold Stallworth and Brad Beatson's new column looks back at essential work from over the years. First up, 2003.
By    March 20, 2015

Random Family


In 1990, while working as an editor for Seventeen magazine and moonlighting as a freelancer, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc covered the trial of George Rivera. Known on the streets as Boy George, the 22-year-old kingpin was said to have amassed more than $15 million from his “Obsession” brand of heroin. Boy George agreed to grant LeBlanc access under the condition that she would conveniently forget the details of their conversations if he was acquitted; otherwise, he would see to it that she was killed. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. Shortly after, LeBlanc acquired a modest book contract from Houghton Mifflin, and so began the first iteration of Random Family.

In the hands of a less capable reporter, Random Family could have easily become a 400-page Don Diva feature. Instead, it evolved into a grim sociological profile set between the urban spires of New York City. What was intended to be a singular account of a Bronx drug dealer expanded to include the plight of Boy George’s girlfriend, Jessica—and then, subsequently branched out into an intertwining network of narratives within her nuclear and extended family, spanning three generations. Leblanc spent the better part of a decade in close quarters with her subjects, seeing them struggle through poverty and all its many consequences firsthand. She was present for birthday parties, welfare office appointments, prison visits, parent-teacher conferences and prom nights. Her exhaustive research, however, came at the expense of her colleagues’ patience: she went through five editors and two publishing houses before the book was finally released by Scribner in 2003 to overwhelming critical acclaim.

LeBlanc’s approach to narration is passive, and as a result, her subjects possess a certain moral impunity. Their hardships and imperfections and errors in judgement, no matter how egregious, are never used as the butt of social commentary; this is what allows Random Family to be so many things at once. At times, it reads like a template for the most riveting chapters of Ethan Brown’s Queens Reigns Supreme. Elsewhere, it favors an exposé of the American judicial system. Though more often than not, and perhaps even inadvertently, LeBlanc captures a chain of impossibly crude snapshots of New York City between the years of 1984 and 2001, tapering off just months before the fall of the twin towers. It memorializes the underworld and underclass during a much-romanticized stretch of the city’s history, but Leblanc’s depictions refuse to idealize. — Harold Stallworth

Big Fish


Losing your story metabolism sucks. When you’re young you’ll tune into just about any yarn. Then you get older and start to realize that people repeat themselves, a lot, and their stories evolve over time, but mostly, they grow stale. If you’re lucky they’ll say “I might have told this one before,” but you’ll listen again anyway. Until one day you’re bloated and it becomes, “How many times am I going to have to sit through this shit?” Stories get old. Whether they’re told in person or on screen, tape, stream or stage, you start to see patterns and wonder if they have any truth to them at all. You wonder if there’s such a thing as a new idea (of course there’s such a thing as a new idea, don’t be ridiculous). It’s a dark state of mind, and it’s shared by Billy Crudup as we enter Tim Burton’s Big Fish.

Big Fish follows a young man (Ewan McGregor) named Edward Bloom who leaves his small pond. He’s the most optimistic, most persistent and 100% for sure the smilyest person you’ll come across in a movie ft. a traveling circus. He’s also the foil to Billy Crudup’s Will Bloom.

The story’s told in the present and through a series of flashbacks. In the present, Ed (Albert Finney) is dying so Will and his wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard) visit during his final days. Will thinks everything his father’s ever told him is a lie and he wants to know the truth, before he buries him. A very grim way to start a movie, no doubt, but even as it plays out on its deathbed, Burton manages to make the best movie of his career.

If you’re familiar with ol’ Timmy boy you’ll recall that some of his movies feature a bit of grossness (I’d screen-cap examples but I’d rather not induce your gag reflex). Big Fish is pretty, and pretty tame in comparison to say, Batman Returns–making it his most “accessible” movie. Accessible is a terrible word, what I’m trying to say is that it’s like his Moonrise Kingdom, in that you could watch it with anyone and they would probably enjoy it and not have nightmares or get confused. Burton’s movies aren’t perfect in the sense that everything on screen doesn’t have to look beautiful or machine-made, there’s plenty of room for human error and wonder. His use of CGI is kept to a minimum. In one scene Timmy B plants thousands of flowers outside Ed Bloom’s future wife’s sorority house. In another, Ed gives a fellow outcast his backpack as a sign of trust. It’s Burton’s ghoulish, not-so-straight lined, making-fun-of-your-fear-of-death, challenging-your-idea-of-what’s-beautiful, style.

Rather than give you the top ten best Big Fish GIFs, my lasting impression is that Tim Burton is a lot like Edward Bloom and he’s sick and tired of people like Will. He really fucking goes for it in his movies. He creates entire sets outside that’ll only be seen on screen for a few seconds. He remembers what it was like to hear something or see something for the first time, and how it had the ability to completely steal your attention (like Mr. Wonderful leaking on a Thursday) and make you think about nothing but how amazing it is for hours. It’s why Big Fish celebrates the storyteller: Those who are able to steal your attention from the terrible realities we suffer from time to time. They dress things up a bit, let you escape for awhile. —Brad Beatson

Dizzee Rascal – Boy In Da Corner


Kanye didn’t bring grime to America. Danny Brown became a worldwide star in 2013, celebrating thirty, by riding what Dizzee Rascal did ten years prior, at 17. It’s right there in the opening seconds of “Fix Up, Look Sharp.” Is that Danny or Dizzee laughing? In between (and including) XXX and Old, Danny created some of the best rap songs of the 2010s–thanks to Boy In Da Corner and grime.

Boy In Da Corner has beats for the car, beats for the club; stories for the blunted, chants for the drunks. And yet it’s still not going to crossover into the American mainstream. It’s so dense and the accent so thick, with decade-old never-heard slang—but the beats smack. Just like “Shutdown” smacks. And “All Day.” Songs like “I Luv U” and “Fix Up, Look Sharp” would be two of the few that could work outside a DJ’s set today. The rest are less primal and better understood with a lyrics website (no Genius).

At 17, Dizzee was rapping about living inside his head, the pains of growing up, and detailing how his world had changed.  On opener “Sittin’ Here”:

“Yeah, it’s the same old story, I’ve sussed, there’s nobody I can trust  / ‘Cause it was only yesterday after school we’d come outside and meet / It was only yesterday, it was all love back then / It was only yesterday, every sunny day was a treat / Now I’m sitting here thinking wagwan.”

I don’t want to talk about Boy In Da Corner being a classic, though, or parse its lyrics or get to what it means to East London or grime, I’m not Son Raw. I can’t do it proper justice. But what I do know is that any album that can cross the world and impact my ears, ears from a completely different background and upbringing, is important and worth revisiting. Doing donuts after a fresh batch of lake-effect snows in the parking lot of your high school, in a friend’s moms borrowed minivan, while smoking a bowl, and listening to “I Luv U,” was fun in 2005 when I was 17. It would still be fun today. Dizzee’s accent can grow tiresome quickly, but for a quick jolt here and there, and as a late-night party enhancer, there’s not much else I could recommend that will go harder. And it will surprise the fuck out of anyone who hasn’t heard it before. —Brad Beatson

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