Any filmed document of Jay-Z's 2003 Madison Square Garden date is going to be a disappointment in at least one regard: By definition, it can't include footage of Jay-Z's peeps pepper-spraying R. Kelly. Oh, Kelly's here, all right, sharing a stage with Jay-Z in what one assumes were happier times. Then again, the footage of their brief in-concert duet ends with a close-up that finds the R&B crooner looking awfully perturbed about something. Either he's experiencing a moment of precognition, or he's just spotted somebody brandishing an Uzi in Row RR.
Return with us now to the halcyon days before the disastrous Best of Both Worlds Tour, when the subject on everyone's lips was Jay-Z's impending "retirement" from the biz. (Moral: Any scam that worked for David Bowie, Gary Numan and Ozzy Osbourne is more than good enough for rap.) Like the main man himself, the multitude of guest stars who show up to give him a proper send-off can't stop gushing about how momentous the occasion is not only for the wildly successful headliner, but for rap music itself, which we're told is rarely allowed into the Garden's hallowed environs.
This sort of talk carries automatic sway with the presold audience that would have eaten up Fade to Black had it aired on pay cable. But releasing the film to theaters subjects it to a heightened level of scrutiny from disinterested parties like a certain rapidly aging film critic, who hasn't bought a hip-hop record since Ice Cube dropped Predator. (Throw your hands in the air; wave 'em if you've just stopped caring.) To those of us without any particular axe to grind, Fade is always at least an average music doc, and it occasionally ventures into the realm of "good." That it falls short of greatness is mostly due to its unabashedly insider approach, and to failings that appear to rest squarely on the shoulders of its subject.
Director Michael John Warren clearly knows how to make a live gig look thrilling. He shoots the concert from all manner of angles, remembering to include plenty of wide shots that convey the full impact of Jay-Z's impressive production, from descending video screens to state-of-the-art lighting and pyro. Relentless tracking shots follow the star and his all-star collaborators including Beyoncé Knowles, Kanye West, Mary J. Blige and a jaw-dropping Twista as they throw down to beats both live and pretaped. On the rare occasions when the action threatens to grow static, Warren has his videographers run through the audience with hand-held cameras to immortalize every possible moment of fan abandon. Meanwhile, wry backstage footage captures the more mundane details of putting on a show, like last-minute bling applications and wardrobe malfunctions.
But this isn't just a concert flick. To further communicate Jay-Z's prominence in the hip-hop field and to establish a running context for the performances we're witnessing Warren treats us to highlights from the recording of the artist's best-selling CD and supposed swan song, The Black Album. While the significance of these sessions often falls to Jay-Z to explain (this isn't a genre founded on self-effacement), you can tell there's innovative ingeniousness at work when he spontaneously leaves holes in a vocal track, the better to fill in later with a dead-on cracka impression. And if the magnitude of such abilities still escapes you, you can take the word of a succession of awestruck colleagues, including hilariously eccentric producer/pioneer Rick Rubin.
For those testimonials to have any effect, though, one has to be able to distinguish a Rubin from a John David Kalodner. Therein hangs one of the movie's chief flaws: Discounting the hurriedly shouted concert intros, it never stoops to telling us who anybody is. Wishing for an on-screen ID to accompany a personality's first appearance means admitting to tourist status, but it's the lack of same that led no less than The New York Times to misidentify Foxy Brown as Li'l Kim. (Come back, Elvis Mitchell, all is forgiven. Just don't bring Jayson Blair with you.)
And while the studio segments demonstrate that Jay-Z is a talent to be reckoned with, the concert footage reveals that his stage presence is surprisingly mediocre (high-tech gewgaws notwithstanding). The best rap performers dominate their turf through intimidation, sauntering back and forth like wild animals ready to strike. Jay-Z's incessant pacing looks perfunctory in comparison, and he's betrayed by his close-ups: Too often, when his eyes and jaw should be set in fierce determination, he looks as if his thoughts are miles away. In interviews, admirers contend that he's always thinking two steps ahead artistically and business-wise; perhaps this is one unfortunate manifestation.
One can't fault filmmaker Warren for such blemishes it's Jay-Z's movie, and you have to show him. But because of them, the film ironically ends up suggesting that its star's concerts are a gas because of everything (and everyone) he can throw up around him, not any particular excitement he generates from within. "Going through the motions" is a term that appears to apply to his live oeuvre far more than "existing in the moment."
To be fair, I said the same thing about Madonna in 1985. And I think we all know how that one turned out.