This review was corrected on Sept. 6, 2000.
The concert pic/docu “Back Stage” takes a scattershot approach in its depiction of rapper Jay-Z’s hugely successful 1999 “Hard Knock Life” tour. Pic haphazardly intersperses interview segments assessing the rise in popularity of hip-hop culture with live performance footage and the more conventional backstage and tour-bus hijinks. Limited Dimension/Miramax release (rolling into select markets today) may have been dusted off the shelf partly due to the recent crossover success of the comedy-concert item “The Original Kings of Comedy”; but unlike that picture, “Back Stage” lacks sufficient appeal beyond niche aficionados of its featured performers to score significant theatrical coin. Video and music-oriented cable outlets should swiftly provide a more suitable home.
Making his feature debut, editor and TV documentarian Chris Fiore keeps things moving at a breathless pace. Pic is never boring, instigating a number of potentially provocative inquiries into the mainstreaming of hip-hop, the prevalent infatuation (for both artists and fans) with gangster iconography and the connections, both real and perceived, between hip-hop, violence and drug use. But the pic fails to follow through on any of these in a satisfactory way — partly because numerous interviewees balk at such sensitive issues — but mostly because Fiore seems torn between deconstructing the subculture and turning out a slick, commercially appealing concert film.
Fiore does manage to capture some powerfully truthful sound bites from Jay-Z and the various other artists sharing the tour’s bill, such as when former drug dealer Ja Rule comments that “slinging crack rock,” “having a wicked jump shot” or rapping are the three most viable ways of escaping urban poverty for most inner-city, minority youths. But there are hardly enough of those moments to warrant viewing “Back Stage” over, say, putting on one of Jay-Z’s funny, fiercely honest albums or checking out Peter Spirer’s 1997 “Rhyme & Reason,” which, though it documented an earlier generation of hip-hop trendsetters, was more prescient on the sociopolitical forces behind hip-hop and its significance.
Mostly, the thrust of “Back Stage” is on Jay-Z and Damon Dash (the charismatic co-founder and CEO of Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella record label) as they juggle the politics and egos of a concert tour. It’s a compelling subject, but one that has been oft-visited by music industry narratives and docus, and one to which “Back Stage” adds relatively little.
Observed strictly as a concert pic, “Back Stage” features a series of highly charged, virtuoso performances by Jay-Z, Ja Rule, DMX and Amil (the tour’s only female act), shot by mostly handheld video cameras in a raw manner that does go a long way toward helping hip-hop uninitiates understand the music’s guttural power and energy.
Curiously, though, few of the film’s numbers are allowed to play out in their entirety, in a misjudgment of audience attention spans. Fiore and co-editor Richard Calderon seem to punch in and out of songs on a whim, so the performances become victims of the musicvideo pacing that hurtles “Back Stage” along even when you wish it would stop to catch its breath.
But the greatest disappointment is the film’s failure to capitalize on one of the central ironies of the enormously profitable hip-hop industry: the fact that the very impoverished urban society from which hip-hop artists seek to liberate themselves and others is in fact largely responsible for the creation, popularity and relevance of hip-hop culture itself.
Without the ghetto, hip-hop (if it existed at all) would be a very different entity, which may reveal hip-hop as something of a self-consumptive force. Whatever the case, it could certainly provide the impetus for a riskier, edgier docu than “Back Stage.”