Documentary Review: A French-Congolese singer/rapper, up close — “GIMS: On the Record”

“GIMS: On the Record” is a quick-study immersion in the French pop hero of the moment, Maitre Gims, a singer-rapper born in the Congo, raised in Paris, with an “operatic” voice that separates him from his contemporaries at home and abroad.

Famous for his omni-present sunglasses, for hits such as “Caméléon” and “Brisé” and for selling lots of records and dominating French radio in recent years, “On the Record” promises a peek behind the glasses, or at least a superficial gloss on his carefully constructed public persona.

This documentary tracks GIMS (how he’s billed sometimes) from France’s big music NRJ awards show of 2017 to a 2018 career-pinnacle concert at the vast Stade de France, outside of Paris.

We see him cope with fans, work on songs, show off his manga (he likes to dabble in comics), sing in the studio and in concert, chill at home in Marrakech (where he now lives) and travel by private jet in this “business sprinkled with fantasy” life “in a cage” that he leads.

Friends and colleagues, like his singing protege and younger brother Dadju, talk of the “two Gims,” the one everybody sees and the ones only his family gets to see — the one who isn’t in sunglasses all the time.

“Will we get to see his eyes?” Gims jokes (in French with English subtitles) to the camera, giving his documentary a little mystery.

He started out as a rapper, and realized “he had a legitimate voice,” one management team intimate explains. That gave him “an advantage over everybody else” in French pop and rap, certainly. As the son of a fairly famous Congolese singer Djanana Djuna, a vocalist in Papa Wemba’s band and a favorite of the late Congolese dictator Mobutu, of course he had voice.

Dad, shown in old clips and interviewed fresh here, says that he fell afoul of the Mobutu regime and that’s why they moved. When the family split up, as a boy Gandhi Bilel Djuna (his birth name) was homeless, a squatter with his siblings, for a time.

About that birth name, Gims jokes, “Dad was a (Gandhi) fan,” and “The Congolese are the best with names!”

The guy comes off as utterly charming and disarming, perhaps the secret to his great success. The French, one record exec mentions, rarely take to “arrogant” wealth-flaunting pop stars, which holds back many rappers. The “masculine aggression” so associated with rap here and there isn’t an issue with Gims.

But as Gims warms up backstage with a little art song (opera), as we see him in a hoodie with the English slogan, “I am NOT a Rapper” emblazoned on it, we realize we’re not dealing with some mere mortal here.

“Just because you’re a rapper doesn’t mean you can’t sing,” says no less than Sting, the English rock star who never found a “new” singer from an exotic culture that he wouldn’t want to duet with. (He did.) “Just because you’re a singer, doesn’t mean you can’t rap.”

“On the Record” treats us to Gims’ peak — a joyous return to Congo (he moved away aged two), and the Stade de France show, fussed over by his mate and image consultant and fellow sunglasses fan, Demden every step of the way.

We hear him speak of his quick embrace of French art, culture and values as a child, plan an awards show appearance that will be “the second most expensive (single song) performance (after Rihanna),” and show a little competitive side about his brother doing well in the awards department, “maybe someday surpassing me.”

And then he leads Demden down a boulevard in Cannes, acting as “security” for his “Beyonce,” barking “NOT allowed” at the parade of paparazzi that accompany them, snapping away, goofing on all this fame nonsense even as he dutifully stops for plenty of selfies with fans along the way.

“Wonder if there are American singers and rappers watching this?” you think. “Are they worried about him learning English? Maybe they should be.”

MPAA Rating: TV-MA

Cast: Gims, Djuba, Sting, Vitaa, others

Credits: Directed by Florent Bodin. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:36

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