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[This piece originally ran in April during the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.]
Here's the thing about Gabriel Noble's film P-Star Rising: it sounds relatively improbable. In what world is a nine-year-old girl a wildly talented rapper who can hold her own on the streets and in the club? Where can she go with that sort of singular talent? And this is a true story? A documentary?
In Noble's touching, fascinating work, we get the backstory on the now-teenage Priscilla Star Diaz, who's currently charming fans on the 2009 reboot of the classic children's show, The Electric Company. We meet her family: shy older sister Solsky and her father, single dad Jesse Diaz, a former rising star of hip-hop who finds himself broke and living in a shelter with his two young girls. Most importantly, we get her story: how a young rapping prodigy navigates the music business, and how she deals with the weight of her family's troubles on her back. It's an real, gritty, and intimate glimpse into a captivating life, and it's a great documentary.
We got director Gabriel Noble on the phone (he was actually walking uptown to meet with the Diaz family) to talk about his four-year-long odyssey following Priscilla and her family, what he took away from P-Star Rising, and why this film transcends its "family film" slot as a film that everybody will enjoy, whether you're a resilient young girl, an ambitious, devoted father, or someone who knows someone who is.
Tribeca: How did you first meet Priscilla?
The first time I met Priscilla, I was producing a short film in Harlem. We were shooting at a dance studio, and she was an extra. It was midnight and I told her dad, "You can take her home." He said, "Don’t worry about it, we’re usually in the club at this hour." At this time she was eight-and-a-half-years-old, up to my waist, really short and tiny. I said, "What are you doing in a night club?" and he said, "She's a rapper."
He called the whole crew over to her. She did 16 bars. It was not little kid stuff—it was street smart, it was raw, she had a cadence. You could see her dad rapping, mouthing the words along with her. I went the next night to the club in lower Manhattan. I spent that night with them. She was snuck in through the back door by the bouncer, everybody was giving her pounds and hugs. When she got on stage, she floored it, she smoked the club. These are people twice her size, three times their age, with their hands in the air going "P-Star."
When I went back to their one-room shelter in Harlem, I realized it was a film. I wanted to know Jesse's story. It was a story of redemption, of someone living vicariously through their kids, and of a little kid carrying the weight of her family’s resources on her back. At the time, I didn’t have the resources to make the film, but there was something there, a spark.
Tribeca: Can you tell me a little more about Jesse's life as a rapper?
Jesse grew up during the start of hip-hop in the '80s in the Bronx. He was part of this movement. His whole world was hip-hop. When breakdancing came out, Afrika Bambaataa was throwing parties and setting up DJ equipment in the park. Jesse fell in love with it and wanted to emulate them. He was kind of in the Afrika Bambaataa group. He went to Miami and started doing rapping with 2 Live Crew, he went on tour with them. He linked up with Ice-T, lived and toured with them. He was just kind of poking his head into the business, but he never really made it. He never got his name on anything, and he felt kind of robbed. His story kind of stopped.
Then he found out he had a child, and she was born cocaine-positive, and that was his daughter. He had to make a choice and he decided to raise his daughter. He put his music career on pause to raise his family. He wasn’t famous and he didn’t have a record deal. But he certainly was on the road to being successful, and he certainly was aligning himself with successful people who were starting to see money in this explosion of hip-hop music. Most importantly, it was his passion, it was his everything. Even if he wasn’t famous at that point or making a lot of money, he was committed to it.
Our goal was to create him as a multidimensional character—on the surface it looks like this crazy stage dad living through his daughter, but when you look at his story there’s this context of a single dad trying to provide for his family. What’s interesting and important for us is to show the dimensions of him as a father.
Tribeca: What was your process with filming the Diaz family?
I followed them for about four years, and I edited the film for another eight months. For the first year, what I filmed was her rapping in nightclubs and on street corners. I filmed her rapping with some of the hardest guys on the street. She was getting some street credibility. That’s what was important to Jesse, that she wasn’t just a kid rapper. It was important for her to be a phenomena in Harlem and to get street credibility.
The reason the film took so long to make was that we were really looking for a transformation in the characters. Some sort of payoff—whether it was Priscilla quitting, going back to school, opening up for Alicia Keys at Madison Square Garden—and it ended up with her getting a lead role on The Electric Company, which is a really beautiful place to end the film, it’s a really safe place for her. She’s getting tutoring and acting classes, and she just went to Japan for two weeks performing. The acting has given her a whole other path, which has been really good for her, and she’s gotten some independence from her father.
Tribeca: How did you finance this film? It sounds like you had to hustle.
I shot the whole film myself and Marjan Tehrani did all the producing, and then we went to Indiepix four years later and they assisted in the post-production. Marjan came to me after I had filmed those first couple of days of the Diaz family and pushed me to make it a film. She saw the layers in the characters before I did.
For four years it was independently financed on credit cards and us working for free. I finished the film Autumn’s Eyes (co-directed with other '09 Festival director Paola Mendoza of Entre nos) and then I directed a film for MTV called I Won't Love You to Death. That aired during the time I was making this film, and I was a producer of a show called dlife, about health and diabetes. And that really helped us with this film and provided us with the way to make the movie.
Tribeca: What kind of audience are you hoping to get for P-Star Rising? What can we expect from its showing at the Drive-In on April 25?
It’s a New York story, it takes place in every borough in New York. I'm pretty much running and gunning throughout the film—I'm following this family on the street corners of New York as they try to redeem a dream. My goal is that it’s not targeted to one audience and that people, from parents to New Yorkers, can relate to the story.
I think it will reach a diverse audience—families, teenagers, parents, and music lovers all in the same venue outdoors. It’s marketed as a family film but it's so much more than that. The Drive-In allows everyone to go despite ticket prices, and they relate to it in their own way. Kids will relate to it as a kid trying to become a star, and music fans can relate to seeing the music world through the eyes of a kid. Priscilla is going to perform with The Electric Company and do her own thing solo by herself with dancers. It'll be special because [the audience will] have met her intimately and have seen her journey. You usually get a Q&A but in this case you get a show.
P-Star Rising plays for free on Thursday, September 3 at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. Part of Rooftop Films' summer screening series, the show begins with live music at 8:30 pm; the film starts at 9:00 pm.
Check out video from the 2009 Tribeca Drive-in: