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
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."
FADE TO BLACK / **
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.