If you haven’t heard of the Hennessy Artistry Series, the multi-city slate of sonically striking music performances by acts that run the gamut from the alternative to the improvisational to the alchemic virtuosity of hip-hop, the rock you’ve been living under is about to be overturned.

Since its debut in 2006, the formative blending of music, art, culture and style fashioned by the most storied Cognac brand in the world, has become a mainstay among the throngs of music lovers that have packed into invite-only, intimate venues across the country.

Last year, Henny tapped acclaimed filmmaker Thibaut De Longeville to direct the recently released documentary, The Art of Blending, which encapsulates a medley of iconic and unforgettable performances by emerging and popular artists and behind-the-scenes interviews with Chaka Khan, Mary J. Blige, Eve, Bobby Brown, Ron Isley, Erykah Badu, Jay Electronica, D-Nice, Q-Tip and The Legendary Roots Crew.

XXLMag.com caught up with the French director of the cult-classics, Just For Kicks, a documentary about sneakers and hip-hop, and, Air Force 1: Anatomy of an Urban Legend, a feature-length doc about Nike’s Air Force 1 narrated by KRS-One, in Paris for the 9th Annual Quai 54 International Streetball Tournament to talk about everything that went into creating his latest doc.—Maurice Bobb

XXL: How did a reformed sneaker addict like you get into filmmaking?

Thibaut De Longeville: I started out as a production assistant in the early/mid-90s, interning and working in various production companies, assisting directors like Fab 5 Freddy, Brett Ratner, Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Michel Gondry working on music videos, hanging out on sets, trying to absorb and learn as much as I could on the field. I started producing myself in 2003, and directed my first film in 2005: Just for Kicks, which gained a lot of attention worldwide and opened a lot of doors for me in terms of filmmaking.

Why do you prefer to direct documentary style films?

There have been major evolutions with the documentary medium/art form in the past 10 years. I think films like Dogtown & Z-Boys, Buena Vista Social Club, Scratch, Infamy, Helvetica and some say films like Just for Kicks have changed what can be expected from a documentary nowadays. Filmmaking in general has become more accessible and now offers a lot of different ways to tell a story, so in turn you get a whole new energy in documentary films that are non-traditional and can be infused with influences coming from music videos, motion pictures, graphic design, beat making, etc. and that’s very exciting. I just love documentaries as a filmmaker, and as a Hip-Hop head I think the medium is incredibly appropriated to subject matters relative to the culture, which deals a lot with reality and the real world rather than fiction. That being said, I’m definitely not limiting myself to documentaries and enjoy all sorts of filmmaking, from music videos to shorts to hopefully soon fiction.

How did the Hennessy Art of Blending documentary come to be?

Hennessy has been developing a program called Hennessy Artistry for the past seven or eight years, working with musicians, photographers, visual artists, etc. But they had never really documented the experiences. They contacted me on the eve of the last Hennessy Artistry tour, which featured a pretty heavy line-up of artists and presented a good opportunity to document and share these quite unique and quite exclusive experiences with the world. We talked a little bit about how to make it happen, and I before I knew it, I was on the road with this unbelievable cast of artists.

What was your vision for the documentary before you started filming and did it change at any point?

I wanted to try and capture the essence of what these iconic artists stand for, and the spirit of them collaborating in very classy settings. I actually had very little time to prepare shooting, so I kind of had to adapt on the road as we were shooting, dealing with everyone’s availability and the fact the events weren’t originally produced with the intention of making them into a film at all. As high-end and as classy as the events where, the production of the film itself was actually as ‘rockumentary’ as it gets.

How were you able to get all of the participating musicians to speak for the project?

All the artists on the tour had pretty busy schedules outside the performances so getting them to commit to our windows of opportunity was one of the most difficult things on the project. I’m glad we still managed to steal time here & there and get them on camera to share their thoughts on collaborating with other artists, where the culture stands, and their dedication to their craft, which I think is one thing all the artists featured on the tour really shared.

Why did you choose to shoot the film in black and white?

I am fascinated with the aesthetics of jazz music, whether jazz photography from the likes of William Claxton and Blue Note’s Francis Wolff or jazz album cover art from the likes of Reid Miles and other designers. There’s an obvious parallel between jazz musicians and artists like The Roots, Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, Soulquarians & Native Tongues tribes; but I had never really seen them filmed and presented in that fashion, and I thought this project was a great opportunity to do something in that direction. I wanted to focus on these artists’ personalities and their performances, beyond the context of the events, and not have anything dated in that way. My aim was really to capture something timeless, that you can hopefully watch in 10 or 15 years and say ‘Hey, that was kinda cool’.



How many of the shows did you attend?

I attended 3 out of the 5 shows Hennessy had in Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles and New York City. I personally shot three shows with my crew, and was given footage from the other shows. I missed Ice Cube in Los Angeles, which would have been huge for me being a HUGE Cube fan, and dope performers in Chicago like Currensy, Yahzarah and Kid Sister which I would have loved to meet and see perform as well. On the other hand, I got to kick it with such legends as Chaka Khan, Ron Isley and Bobby Brown, so I can’t really complain.

Did curators Q-Tip and Questlove contribute any ideas that you used for the doc?

Questlove, The Roots & Q-Tip basically curated the shows choosing the artists they were gonna perform here, getting D-Nice to DJ and perform with them on tour on top of him already being the official photographer for the initiative. So they, along with the teams at Hennessy and Alloy Access, are to be credited for the incredible line-up and performances they’ve put together. As far as the film is involved, they were actually unaware the film was being shot until the final show in NYC, which I would think is one of the reasons why we’ve captured such raw and candid footage.

What is your personal definition of The Art of Blending when it comes to the music in this project?

This project was about blending musical genres, blending musicians and performers, mixing old school and new school, and blending art forms. Music-wise you have Hip-Hop, R&B, Funk, Soul and Pop/Electronica, young & hip music mavericks like Marsha Ambrosius, Daniel Merriweather & Mike Posner alongside legends and icons like Mary J. Blige, Bobby Brown, Chaka Khan, Ron Isley or Erykah Badu. Film-wise I approached it as mix between film, photography and graphic design, which hopefully people will appreciate.

How many hours of film did you collect and why did you edit or keep the footage you did over others?

I must have gathered about 20 hours of performances, about 10 hours of interviews and 5 hours of behind-the-scenes and other stuff. The ambition has always been to create something that would be available online for everyone to enjoy, so somewhat of a shorter format than you would have in a feature film. That informed most of how the film was edited, also Hennessy had their hand in what they felt should be highlighted, which wasn’t necessarily what I felt should be, so there were some decisions made there as well, but overall I didn’t have much restrictions in how to bring my vision to life. There’s things I really wish would have stayed in the final cut but that’s always the case, whether you’re dealing with Hennessy or Universal Pictures. If people like the film online, maybe I’ll get a chance to present additional material at some point, or my own director’s cut one day.

What do you hope people who see this film get from it?

I hope the people who see this film are inspired by the sights and sounds of iconic artists from very different musical backgrounds, performing together on stage and sharing thoughts and private moments off the stage. I think that if you know and love music, there are a few magic moments in there for you, both in performances and in some of the interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. The film is accessible for free online, that’s really amazing for me as a filmmaker. I can’t think of ever seeing such a line-up shot and documented in this fashion, available anywhere. Let alone for free for the whole world to enjoy. I give props to Hennessy for making that happen, for sure.

What surprised you most about making this film?

The variety and quality of talents was quite overwhelming so that’s definitely something I will always remember. I now have very fond memories of both the experiences and the filming, with most of the incredible talents I’ve had a chance to meet. Performance-wise, some of the things that stood out for me were The Roots overall as a backing band, performing live renditions of each and everyone’s songs with amazing interpretation skills. Q-Tip sharing the stage with them was a unique treat, we captured a pretty classic performance of ‘Excursions’ which is one of my favorite ATCQ songs. Being on all these shows also reinforced for me how ill of a lyricist and how extraordinaire of a performer Black Thought actually is. People often talk about The Roots being one of the best bands in music, which there is no question about; but from an emceeing standpoint, Black Thought might very well be the best MC out there, definitely in my Top 5 dead or alive, and definitely the most underrated MC in the game. Dude is just ill. As far as the film experience, there were really special moments with Erykah Badu, Jay Electronica and Chaka Khan. Just a lot of cool memories, which I tried to share in the film.

What are some of the projects you’re currently working on?

Right now I’m finishing up a video on the Quai 54 and I’m executive producing Bobbito Garcia’s first documentary project tentatively titled, Doin’ It In The Park: Pick-up Basketball, NYC, scheduled for a summer 2012 global release.

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