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In HBO’s Juice WRLD documentary, fans will ‘see him completely,’ director says

‘Into the Abyss’ draws from hours of footage of the late, Chicago-born rapper onstage, in the recording studio and hanging out with friends.

Juice WRLD, who was a rising rap star at the time of his death in 2019, cracks a smile in a moment from the documentary “Into the Abyss.”
HBO

“Whether he knew it or not, Juice was a therapist to millions of kids,” music producer and songwriter Benny Blanco observes towards the end of the new HBO film “Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss.”

An unsparing yet ultimately celebratory portrait of the Chicago-bred, gone-too-soon rapper — a bona fide superstar in progress, but one who’d struggled with anxiety, depression and substance dependency over the course of his young life — “Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss” premieres Thursday as part of the “Music Box” documentary series.

Since Juice’s music is “so empathetic and vulnerable, it continues to resonate,” the film’s director Tommy Oliver told the Sun-Times in a Zoom conversation, pointing out, “He had more than 5 billion streams on Spotify this year alone.” In fact, the online music service’s 2021 list of most-streamed U.S. artists has Juice WRLD up at No. 3, behind only megastars Drake and Taylor Swift.

“His music makes the kids feel better,” says Carmela Wallace, Juice WRLD’s mother, on camera of her son’s artistry. Juice was born Jarad Higgins on Dec. 2, 1998, and grew up in Chicago’s south suburbs, graduating from Homewood-Flossmoor High School in 2017. He died of an accidental overdose upon landing at Midway Airport, six days after his 21st birthday.

Juice’s first posthumous album, “Legends Never Die,” launched five songs simultaneously into the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart — an achievement shared solely by the Beatles and Drake. Another album, “Fighting Demons,” dropped Friday.

“Into the Abyss” director Oliver has crafted a vivid collage of video snapshots — filmed during Juice WRLD’s final two years by videographers Steve Cannon and Chris Long — who were given intimate access to the newly wealthy rapper onstage, in the recording studio, hanging out with friends, partaking in copious amounts of various intoxicants, and dropping the dazzling freestyle raps for which Juice had become ever-more-widely renowned. Interspersed with this archival footage are contemporary interviews Oliver conducted with family members, hip-hop peers and music industry folk — including an exec from major label Interscope Records, which had signed Juice to a multimillion-dollar deal in 2018.

Juice WRLD (right) works in the studio in footage seen in “Into the Abyss.”
HBO

When approached about directing the Juice WRLD documentary, Oliver was already a fan of Juice’s music. “It was everywhere, and it was so catchy and interesting,” Oliver said. “I didn’t really know a lot about him at that point; I was just hearing these tracks that seemed like they had a lot behind them.” He’d also directed last year’s HBO documentary “40 Years a Prisoner,” which chronicled the infamous 1978 police attack on Black communal organization MOVE in Oliver’s native Philadelphia.

Upon agreeing to take on the Juice WRLD project this past January, Oliver said, “I got dumped a hard drive with a ton of footage” from the late rapper’s estate: “That was the start of the process.”

Oliver and his co-editor Joe Kehoe meticulously catalogued the raw material, the better to cut it together “as quickly as possible — at the speed of thought.” And as the director expressed it, “There was a lot of time where it was just me at the computer, living in the archival footage, watching this person. Weirdly, getting close to this person, because it was kind of like reading somebody’s diary. I would never meet Juice, never have a conversation with him, yet I now knew so much about him.”

Committed to telling Juice WRLD’s story “in his own voice,” Oliver eschewed narration, “so we don’t have somebody coming in and telling you how to feel about what you just saw.” This is also, Oliver stressed, why “there’s not a single piece of score in the whole film, not even a subtle push.” The only music heard is, naturally, Juice’s own.

“I worked very hard to make sure that we see him completely — the good, the bad.” What comes across indelibly, Oliver said, is that Juice “was such a good person. He was so kind and sweet and goofy, and went out of his way — at a concert with tens of thousands of people — to ensure that he told them to follow their dreams. A 19-, 20-year-old kid telling them to do what was important to them. He was as good of a person as he was talented. Which is just nuts.”

Cole Bennett, who directed Juice’s star-making video “Lucid Dreams,” notes in the film’s closing minutes that the artist’s legacy is his “timeless” and “incredible” music: “There are Juice WRLD fans that aren’t even born yet. He’s here forever; he’s not going anywhere.”