'Fade' captures the music -- not the essence of Jay-Z


November 5, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


In the multi-million-dollar lawsuit that R. Kelly filed against Jay-Z, the Chicago R&B superstar charges that the hip-hop giant booted him off their joint "Best of Both Worlds" tour because he wanted to claim more money from the lucrative concert jaunt, and he was looking for a headline-making controversy to drum up business for his new concert film and documentary "Fade to Black," which opens in theaters today.

While the Pied Piper's first claim is a distinct possibility -- though Hova already has more cash than he can probably spend in his lifetime, and he's only going to do better once he's ensconced in the board room as Def Jam's new president -- the second assertion seems pretty far-fetched. "Fade to Black" is a simple, old-fashioned concert movie with no grand ambitions, cutting between scenes of Jay-Z performing onstage at New York's Madison Square Garden at what was to have been his last concert before retiring -- a respite that lasted all of one year -- and vignettes of "the rapper with a C.E.O.'s mind" honing his craft in the studio during the making of 2003's "The Black Album."


Featuring: Jay-Z, Beyonce, Michael Buffer, Mary J. Blige, Common, Mike D., Missy Elliott, Funkmaster Flex, R. Kelly, P-Diddy, Pharrell, Timbaland, Twista, Usher, Kanye West

Paramount Classics presents a documentary directed by Michael John Warren. Rated R (strong language). Running time: 109 minutes. Opeing today at local theaters.

"This record ain't a record," Chicago rapper and producer Kanye West says of "The Black Album" midway through the film as he and Jay-Z collaborate in the recording studio. "It's like a movie." Indeed it is -- at least during its best tracks, like "99 Problems" and "December 4" -- and "The Black Album" would have provided a great screenplay for a much more interesting film than this one, which is essentially a concert souvenir for the fans who were there, as well as those who weren't.

Co-directed by Pat Paulson and Michael John Warren, the onstage footage is well-shot but nothing extraordinary, adequately capturing the rapper as he performs alone and with members of the Roc-A-Fella Records crew to taped backing tracks or fronting a potent band led by Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. I've seen lazy, uninspired, going-through-the-motions Jay-Z shows (the Riviera Theatre, 2001) and trying-hard-but-sounding-just-OK Jay-Z shows (the opening of the "Best of Both Worlds" tour at the Allstate Arena in late September). This is neither.

With something to prove as he said farewell, at least temporarily, to his hometown crowd, the concert portions of the film capture Jay-Z at his very best. The 34-year-old rapper's fluid lyrical skills and cooler-than-subzero persona are on full display, making clear why he is one of the biggest stars that hip-hop has ever produced.

That being said, a concert film is never as good as the concert itself. The performance footage drags at times, and the movie begins to feel forced and pretentious a la "The Last Waltz" with its endless parade of guest-star cameos, including Foxy Brown, Mary J. Blige, Jay's squeeze Beyonce Knowles and -- ironically -- R. Kelly, which further deflates Kelly's claim that Jay-Z wanted to sabotage him.

Fans will probably get more of a kick out of the behind-the-scenes glimpses of the former Shawn Carter working in the studio at various times with producers West, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and Rick Rubin, seeing these maestros of the mixing board bow down in homage to Jay-Z's skills at the microphone ("He doesn't write anything down -- I've never seen anything like it!" Rubin crows), and watching the artist work his magic at the mike when only a handful of people in the control room are watching, as opposed to a stadium packed with people.

Jay-Z doesn't offer a lot of insight into the source of his talents. "By far the most important thing for me is inspiration," he says in the narrative voiceover. "As an artist, if you aren't inspired, then you start thinking, and when you start thinking, you start forcing the work, and that's never good." But this attitude is part of his appeal.

Like Dean Martin, another pop icon and inscrutable enigma working in a completely different style during a very different era, Jay-Z gets by through instinct and force of personality, and his considerable skills can be glossed over simply because he makes it all looks so natural and effortless. "Fade to Black" is very much in keeping with his style, though the ultimate Jay-Z movie -- the one that explains who this guy is and what really makes him tick -- has yet to be made, and may not even be possible. Thankfully, for that, we have his music.