Review by Sean Boelman
The feature film debut of acclaimed photographer Estevan Oriol, LA Originals is an autobiographical documentary of sorts, and a brilliant one at that. Taking a gorgeous and entertaining look at the rise of Chicano culture and the Los Angeles hip hop scene, this is a documentary not to miss.
In the movie, Oriol takes a look at the friendship and working relationship between himself and Mister Cartoon, one of the most famous tattoo artists of all time, and how together they influenced the art scene in Los Angeles. This is a lot of material to be covered in one documentary, and it admittedly probably would have been better-fit to a miniseries, but it is some absolutely fascinating stuff.
Since the film has to cover so much ground (including the history of Chicano art, a biography on both Oriol and Cartoon, and a bit about the history of hip hop) in so little time, the movie starts off at a running pace and never lets up until the credits roll. Some viewers may be overwhelmed by the amount of information and the rate at which they have to process it, but those who can go along for the ride will be both informed and entertained.
Arguably the best part of the film is how it explores the friendship between Oriol and Cartoon. Since this is partially his own story, Oriol clearly has a very personal connection to the movie, and it shows. This lens through which Oriol shoots the film is unique, and ultimately, makes the story all the more effective.
Of course, some viewers will be drawn to the movie because of the stature of the subjects. Oriol and Cartoon are both hugely influential figures in the industry, and as a result, Oriol was able to score some high-profile interviewees for the film. Recognizable faces interviewed for the movie include Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and Danny Trejo, all of whom contextualize Oriol and Cartoon’s impact.
That said, the parts of the film that deal with Oriol and Cartoon’s associates who aren’t as well-known are just as effective as those that feature their celebrity clients. Oriol and Cartoon are both very active in helping people on Skid Row in Los Angeles, and the movie explores the ways in which they give back to their community, which is an important message now more than ever.
On a technical level, the film is obviously very impressive thanks to Oriol’s origins as a photographer and visual artist. He brings a particular visual flair to the movie that is highly stylized and makes the film both a ton of fun to watch and gorgeous to look at. Furthermore, the soundtrack is composed of some classic hip hop hits that audiences will undoubtedly know.
LA Originals may bite off a bit more than it can chew at times, but it is a thoroughly entertaining and insightful documentary. People should definitely give this one a shot if they are at all interested in the origins of Chicano culture and hip hop.
LA Originals is now streaming on Netflix.