Courtesy HBO

On December 20, 2019, I went to the United Center for WGCI’s annual Big Jam festival. Atlanta hitmakers Migos headlined, and I also caught sets from DaBaby, Megan Thee Stallion, Wale, and G Herbo. Every act had a huge following, though as memory serves, none drew the kind of reaction from the crowd as a musician who wasn’t even there: Jarad Higgins, better known as Juice Wrld. Higgins had died from an accidental overdose of codeine and oxycodone 12 days earlier, barely a week after he’d turned 21. Higgins grew up in Chicago’s south suburbs, and rocketed to pop stardom in 2018 after inking a multimillion dollar deal with Interscope; that summer, his runaway hit “Lucid Dreams” seemed to pour out of car speakers anywhere I went. Higgins’s presence saturated the United Center that night in 2019, as the crowd belted out his svelte melodic hooks in unison during a brief tribute between acts.

Higgins’s grip on pop music hasn’t waned the past two years. His first posthumous album, last year’s Legends Never Die, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, and it reached the RIAA’s double platinum benchmark this fall. Last week saw the release of another posthumous Juice Wrld album, Fighting Demons, and it’s got a big promotional machine behind it to ensure the streaming numbers go gaga during a traditionally quiet period for the music industry. Last Thursday, the United Center hosted Juice Wrld Day, during which fans packed the arena’s floor to watch an orchestra embellish Higgins’s hits. I watched portions of the livestream on Amazon Music’s Twitch channel, a viewing that coincided with a screening of the trailer for a new documentary called Juice Wrld: Into the Abyss, which HBO debuts Thursday, December 16. 

Directed by Tommy Oliver, Into the Abyss tracks the final year and a half of Higgins’s life told largely through behind-the-scenes footage. Oliver culled from more than 8,000 hours of footage provided by Steve Cannon and Chris Long, who documented Higgins as he worked in studios, hung out in his swanky Los Angeles house, and toured the world behind his second solo album, 2019’s Death Race for Love. The result is an often frustrating, convoluted vérité-style documentary that conflates access with intimacy. Stans may be wooed by the promise of never-before-seen footage, but anyone unfamiliar with Higgins and his music will likely be lost.

Into the Abyss is the sixth and final entry of Music Box, a new HBO series of music documentaries executive produced by Ringer honcho and sports analyst Bill Simmons. Most of these features concern figures behind popular works of unparalleled success, and in that respect Into the Abyss is no different. But Oliver’s approach to documenting that popularity is also the least insightful, providing almost no context to Higgins’s rise and success beyond chyrons indicating the number of streams a particular song has gained; after a while, seeing that many zeroes listed after each track feels meaningless when there’s nothing to weigh it against. 

The other Music Box films treat popularity differently. In DMX: Don’t Try to Understand, the titular rapper’s mammoth 1998 albums are but a few dots in a pointillist contemporary portrait of a complicated artist attempting to reboot his career following a yearlong prison sentence for tax fraud; in Listening to Kenny G, the smooth-jazz mastermined is defined as much by critical revulsion to his work as he is by the success he’s achieved as (among other things) creator of the best-selling instrumental album of all time. Into the Abyss merely sits in awe of Higgins’s popularity while simultaneously obfuscating the intensity and weight of his success. At one point Lyrical Lemonade founder and video director Cole Bennett—whose visuals for “All Girls Are the Same” initially catapulted Higgins to fame—says Higgins achieved the status of stars such as Drake, but otherwise viewers must rely on footage of screaming crowds and interactions with more established artists to get a better grasp of Higgins’s status.

Oliver recently told the Sun-Times that he didn’t want to use voice-over narration so he could tell Higgins’s story “in his own voice.” Oliver definitely selected clips that show Higgins as an animated force with a drive, talent, and imagination capable of producing enough material in a single studio session to feed lesser artists for the rest of their lives. Early in Into the Abyss, there’s a moment where Higgins unloads a freestyle while goofing off in a hotel room, and watching him quickly shift his focus on building a melodically striking song out of thin air in just a few minutes does a lot more to illustrate his anomalous creative ingenuity than some of the hyperbolic talking-head interviews that sandwich the documentary. But such moments come infrequently and struggle to build narrative momentum within the chronological slog through tour routines and studio sessions. When it comes to live footage, much of it shot from behind Higgins as he cycles through his stage show in city after city, all the clips of fans lighting up stages with their cell phones blur together. 

Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss
1.5/4 stars
Dir. Tommy Oliver, 115 min. HBO

Higgins both feels present and absent in the film. As much as the cameras capture quieter moments after he’d become a celebrity, he always appears ready to perform for the camera—there are few scenes when he seems to let his guard down. A rare moment comes towards the end of the documentary, when he briefly falls asleep sitting up on a private plane as his girlfriend, Ally Lotti, rests her head on his lap; when his eyes snap back open, he offers the cameraman a blue percocet pill. Higgins never sits down for a formal interview, and most of the talking-head exchanges are saved for the end of the documentary, where his friends and loved ones discuss his final moments, reflect on his addiction, and admire the resonance of his music. 

Here, too, the film suffers from failing to contextualize its subjects outside Higgins’s gravity. It’s strange to see Lil Bibby, for example, only referred to by his status as the head of Higgins’s label, Grade A, which began working with Higgins in 2017, though that’s barely addressed in the movie. Into the Abyss doesn’t even bother to mention Bibby’s role as an influential Chicago rapper, nor the massive drill hits he crafted with G Herbo nearly a decade ago. That absolutely matters when it comes to illuminating Higgins’s life and work, since Bibby and Herbo influenced the milieu of Chicago hip-hop as Higgins began to make music. There’s a great moment when Herbo visits Higgins at his home, and Higgins pals around with Herbo like a younger brother trying to impress the veteran rapper. I appreciate that scene largely because I’ve followed both artists for years, and I know about their individual histories and musical collaborations, but it’s also my job to know about their careers. I wondered—as I often did throughout the documentary—how many Music Box viewers would even get an inkling that there’s some greater significance at play, and how many will end up bailing on the doc before this point. 

Part of what makes Higgins such an interesting character is how well he blended deep-seated rap skills with 2000s emo songwriting. The specifics of his influence on hip-hop are lost in the movie. There’s also never a point at which anyone critiques Higgins’s music, and his work is not beyond criticism; the rank misogyny that courses through his earliest work, for example, gets glossed over. Into the Abyss isn’t quite hagiography—it does present Higgins as a complicated person whose death could have been prevented—but it does run a little too close to the Juice Wrld PR machine. 

Into the Abyss opens with a close-up of Juice Wrld as he freestyles, a magnetic moment that reappears on Fighting Demons as “Juice Wrld Speaks 2,” which made me wonder more about the coordinated release of the documentary and album. A promotional e-mail I got for Into the Abyss noting Higgins’s status as Spotify’s third-most-streamed artist in the U.S. doesn’t even factor in Fighting Demons, which could vault Higgins to the number-one spot over Drake and Taylor Swift at the end of the year. I imagine Into the Abyss could help gin up those streaming numbers, which is a fine enough goal for his team to achieve, but does not make for a fleshed-out documentary that Higgins and pop-music fans deserve.