WHO IS GIL SCOTT-HERON? doesn't really want to offer up an answer to its titular question. Commissioned by XL Recordings to accompany the digital release of the late jazz/soul vocalist's final recordings, it seeks to praise him effusively and remind fans what a smart and talented man the world lost when he passed away in 2011.
Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (the filmmakers behind 20,000 Days on Earth, last year's postmodern portrait of Nick Cave) accomplish this by sticking primarily to talking head confessionals from his son Rumal Rackley, his friend since elementary school, some former bandmates, a former assistant, and Richard Russell, the Brit who produced Scott-Heron's 2010 comeback album I'm New Here. Each one speaks warmly and passionately about his spirit, sharp mind, and generosity.
What this short film skims over almost entirely is Scott-Heron's life pre-2010. Outside of a small bit of performance footage from his '70s heyday, you get no sense of his groundbreaking work as a proto-hip-hop poet, as heard on classic albums like 1971's Pieces of a Man. There's also little discussion of the troubles of his later years that included an addiction to crack cocaine and a few stints in prison for possession and parole violation. When anything even close to negative comes up, the folks on camera quickly justify his actions or promise us that even at his most drug-addled, he was still very present and active.
At best, Who Is Gil Scott-Heron? will hopefully spark some viewers' interest to dig deeper into his life and work. But without that context, the film pulls the same snow job that the recent Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck did, attempting to posthumously wipe the slate clean and offer up a gifted yet tormented artist for sainthood. And if it helps sell more records, even better.