Film Review: Rock Rubber 45s

An appealing overview of an independent-minded NYC trendsetter.
Specialty Releases

There’s no doubt the director and subject of this autobiographical documentary has led a fascinating, spanning from the streets of New York, to a prestigious rural high school, to a professional basketball team, to a legendary recording label, to a legendary music magazine, to legendary NYC parties… and we’ve hardly scratched the surface. Bobbito Garcia, “New York City Culture Orchestrator,” has, with Rock Rubber 45s, created an energetic documentary chronicling his colorful career. It’s a bit self-glorifying, but you can’t deny that Garcia’s story of job-hopping and success won on charm, passion and hard work is compelling.

Garcia was born the youngest child of first-generation Puerto Rican parents. A smart kid with a loving mother and protective older siblings, he nonetheless endured a difficult childhood, his father an alcoholic and he himself the victim of bullying and sexual abuse. As an adolescent, he found release in both basketball and an obsessive love for sneakers. After earning a scholarship to Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania (where Patti LaBelle was his host mother), he went on to Wesleyan, as well as to Puerto Rico, where he played professional basketball for the territory’s internationally competitive team.

The fact that his Wesleyan coach wouldn’t start or even play him during an important game, the only one for which his father appeared sober, upsets him to this day—and moves him still to tears of disappointment and frustration. Why the coach had it out for him—racism? jealousy?—is never probed, perhaps because there are still so many of Garcia’s life events to work through. This is emblematic of the doc’s overall approach: Rock Rubber 45s is a splashy catalogue of its subject’s career steps (set to a killer soundtrack), not an analysis of his character.

Never one to allow setbacks to undercut him, after college, Garcia worked for Def Jam, where he was able to indulge his third passion (after basketball and sneakers): hip-hop. Later in life he would become a DJ, but before then, he started his own radio show, which earned such distinction in the hip-hop community that he’s currently hosting another iteration on NPR. He also wrote a column for Quincy Jones’ influential Vibe magazine, was the first hip-hop personality to be invited to perform in South Africa, authored both the first article on sneaker culture and the phenomenon’s definitive book, briefly owned his own sneaker store, became the Editor-In-Chief of his own basketball magazine and hosted the ESPN show, “It’s the Shoes.” I’m skipping many events, but that’s the highlight reel.

Garcia is the sort of man you might call the “unofficial mayor” of your community. He’s gregarious, social, a back-slapper and a hand-shaker, but free of apparent calculation. His smile is broad and quick to flash, his eyes are deep, dark and thoughtful (he was a looker in the ‘90s) and he is easily overwhelmed by tears. As a guide through his own life he is very likable, though I kept reminding myself that it was at his own behest as filmmaker that all these people—Patti LaBelle, Rosie Perez, Lin-Manuel Miranda—gathered to gush about him. Based on this portrayal, your impression of Garcia will likely be very favorable, although there is a strange dissonance between the humility of his appearance on-camera and the ever-present knowledge that he and not a third-party filmmaker is master curator of that image. To give him the benefit of the doubt, he may simply know his own worth.

There is one standout moment in the film. Bobbito recounts the day, as an adult, he reached out to the boy, now man, who sexually abused him as a child. He doesn’t discuss their conversation in detail, but he says he hugged the man and felt much freer from then on. That’s remarkable. Rock Rubber 45s is not a film about sexual abuse, nor should it be. But that moment is a reminder of the complexity inside the man who did all those super-cool things with which the doc is concerned. Garcia also remains mum on his spouse, whose story is noticeably absent, and who could have spoken about him in a more intimate fashion. It’s possible Filmmaker Garcia did not want to invade the privacy of Subject Garcia. Which may be why this portrait of an artist, although appealing, is more bright than resonant.

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