Amuch-heralded example of the "visual album", Topaz Jones' excellent 34-minute film accompaniment to his recent music release has debuted online via the NyTimes. Visual albums have diverse imperatives to meet, and often falter under that weight; they must wow audiences visually, yet still serve as a showcase for the music. Still further, they need to provide ample narrative + thematic thrust in order to satisfy as a stand-alone piece and transcend their status as simply a long music video. Don't Go Tellin' Your Momma is a perfect balance of these sometimes competing prerogatives. In the capable hands of up-and-coming New York directing duo "rubberband" (Jason Sondock and Simon Davis) the film is a fresh approach to the genre, melding personal documentary, coming-of-age tropes, and activist thought into a novel structure, modeled around the concept of the "Black ABC's". This vignette format mirrors the concept of "tracks" on a music album and lays the groundwork for a plethora of visual and thematic ideas which, in their totality, combine to tell the origin story of Topaz Jones as an artist growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, and his journey into a fuller understanding of his own Blackness.
We often criticize over-long short films, but our stance on the perfect length for a film has always been "one minute short of boring". By utilizing the Black ABC's as a structuring device, the film is able to keep things moving at a quick pace, evoking the work of Terence Nance in Random Acts of Flyness. This sort of vignette approach necessarily results in some unevenness across the 26 pieces, but no section outstays its welcome, and it introduces a pleasing amount of diversity: quick visual effect tricks are followed by comedic skits, followed yet further by surprisingly earnest interviews with Black activists on issues dear to them. Intertwined within it all are archival recordings from Black culture and from the Jones family, that lend an auto-biographical specificity to the project, detailing Jones's upbringing and allowing him to rep his hometown and the aspects of family and community that molded him.
This thematic core allows a unity of purpose to all the disparate segment approaches, and that sense of cohesion is helped by the lush direction of rubberband. Shot by celebrated DP Chayse Irvin (BlacKkKlansman) on a mix of 35mm and 16mm film, the photography is, naturally, gorgeous, but the use of film also reinforces the autobiographical nature of the project, evoking the bygone times and vintage style formative to Jones as a person and to the era of funk music which influences his art. There is a great deal of thoughtfulness extended to each piece, as even relatively straightforward segments contain interesting visual ideas. For example, "L is for Language" is primarily an interview with Philadelphia poet Ivy Sole. Ivy is given pride of place, yet she is framed to her side rather than head-on. Throughout her monologue, an incredibly slow camera push draws the viewer into Ivy almost imperceptibly, before pulling out in an equally deliberate manner. It is subtle but emblematic of the care taken with the project as a whole.
This care has allowed Don't Go Tellin' Your Momma to traverse territory unusual to visual albums. A hit on the festival circuit, the film won the "Short Film Jury Award: Nonfiction" at Sundance 2021 and received other coveted placements such as a closing night spot this summer at Rooftop Films. With its multiple approaches, the film is nearly unclassifiable, yet that hasn't stopped the NyTimes from acquiring it for its celebrated Op/Docs programming strand, and the film must be considered a front-runner for award-season recognition in the Documentary category. Even absent this sort of hi-profile validation, the sheer creativity and formal innovation of the project is sure to hold it in good stead as we expect the film to be a much-referenced model in both documentary and the visual album genre for years to come.