Film: Can he beat the rap?

Hype Williams's dazzling videos for the likes of Tupac Shakur and Missy Elliott have reinvented the genre. Now he's made his first feature.
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Pop video is to film as checkers is to chess, as Christian Slater is to Jack Nicholson, and as Chris Moyles is to Howard Stern. When Barry Norman came down from the mountain carrying this particular tablet of stone, Hype (real name Harold) Williams jumped out from behind a burning bush, wrestled Barry to the ground and smashed the tablet into a thousand pieces with a single snap of his clapperboard.

Uncharitably described in Armond White's Tupac Shakur biography, Rebel For The Hell Of It, as "the hip-hop video director specialising in Hollywood knock-offs", Williams has actually reversed the traditional subordinate relationship of pop video to film. While Hollywood has become ever more dependent on soundtrack-led marketing strategies, Williams has turned the supposedly debased creative environment of the promotional clip into the launch pad for some of the most startling and audacious cinematography of recent years. From Missy Elliott's giant inflatable suit to Tupac Shakur's Californian revision of Hieronymous Bosch, the images Williams has come up with have been as enduring as anything on the big screen in the same period.

Watching MTV over the last few years (something Williams himself never does, preferring to spend time with his six-month-old daughter, rather than keeping an eye on how every video-maker and their dog is trying to rip him off), the transformation he has effected has been spectacular. A few years back, your standard R'n'B or hip-hop video would feature a small party scene and some low-rent booty shaking with the odd cutaway to the rapper and his mates hanging around in a car park looking shifty. The hackneyed phrase "production values" doesn't really cover it - Williams's videos are sci-fi cornucopias choreographed by the black Busby Berkeley; a Dino De Laurentiis docusoap of the last days of the Roman empire.

From mainstream stars such as Mariah Carey, Usher and Brandy to hip-hop crossover mogul Puff Daddy and the edgier talents of Busta Rhymes and The Wu-Tang Clan, Williams' svelte and startling visualisations span a broad musical spectrum, but it's his work in the hip-hop field that has had the most dramatic effect. In almost single-handedly making rap - currently the dominant sector of the American music industry - a visual as well as an audio medium, Williams has paved the way for a potentially seismic shift in US showbusiness.

Hype's seven-figure video budgets might embody clout on an unprecedented scale but can Belly, his first venture into full-length movie-making, escape the standard criticism of video directors' feature debuts - that they're just a collection of promo clips stuck together?

A stocky, soft-spoken, nappy-headed individual in Rough Ryderz T-shirt and very wide jeans, Williams is not in the best of moods. There was congestion on the roads which delayed his taxi. This hardly rates as an outrage in central London at nine o'clock on a weekday morning, but for someone who is used to stopping traffic as a matter of course, the long-term psychological damage could be considerable.

The relationship between the music and film industries is notoriously complex, and transferring a power-base from one to the other is always harder than people expect. For all its stellar cast-list - the leading roles are taken by multi-platinum rappers DMX, Method Man and Nas, and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins of global R'n'B megastars TLC - Belly is still a relatively low-budget film, enterprisingly released in the UK by a smallish independent company more used to handling French and Canadian arthouse imports.

As it turns out, this is probably a pretty fair reflection of its commercial appeal. Belly finds Williams's visual bravura expanding triumphantly into the new space available, only to be let down by a clunky, cliche- ridden script. It's ominous enough that Williams describes the screenplay (which he co-wrote with rapper Nas and Anthony Bodden) as "character driven" and "a coming of age story" - expressions which are cause for concern when actors and Hollywood publicity hand-outs use them, let alone writer- directors. But when people find out that this film contains the line "My whole life is dedicated to change, I'm going to Africa", they'll be staying away in droves.

As also demonstrated by crazed British ad-man Tony Kaye's equally curate's eggish debut, American History X, there's nothing like some really fancy cinematography for emphasising the value of narrative flow and moral coherence. But for all the shortcomings of its screenplay, Belly's lurid saga of urban gangsterism has a striking beauty.

Right from the opening scene - a brutal raid on a nightclub, clinically cut to music - through the stark black-and-white interiors of the anti- hero's futuristic appartment to some astonishing Jamaican gangster sequences featuring a hilarious Kingston bad-boy called Lennox (played by dancehall star Louie Rankin), Belly is a feast for the eyes. The sumptuous cinematography of the director's long-term collaborator Malik Hassan Sayeed (also responsible for the stunning look of Spike Lee's He's Got Game) is illuminated at every turn by Williams's trademark intensity of colour. "The reds, the greens, the olives, the golds..." Hype enthuses. "I just want everything to look as good as it does in real life."

Williams's decision to populate his debut film with musical stars he'd already worked with pays off, too, since all his principals deliver convincing and energetic performances. It might have become a commonplace observation that rappers make better screen-actors than old-fashioned pop stars, but that doesn't stop it being true. "Rap artists are strange poets," says the director, "where they come from is not like where everyone else comes from, and I wanted the film to have what they have."

One thing Belly does have, and which all rappers seem to, is an obsession with the year 2000 - taking a bizarre and unexpected diversion in its latter stages into black Muslim millennial fantasy. "From when we were children," Williams explains, "it's always been Space 1999, 2001: A Space Odyssey... now we're actually living in that time, it's mind-boggling - if I was a painter, imagine the kinds of paintings I'd be doing."

Plainly a man who takes his sci-fi seriously, Williams namechecks his formative creative influences as Jules Verne, Tolkien's The Hobbit, and CS Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. Ambitious Hollywood producers please note, a movie version of the latter with Hype Williams at the helm would really be something to see.

`Belly' (18) is released on 2 July