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(2000) (Jay-Z, DMX) (R)

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Documentary: A backstage look at the lives of various rappers and hip-hop artists during their 1999 Northern American tour.
This documentary takes a backstage look at the lives of various rap and hip-hop artists during the 1999 "Hard Knock Life Tour" that included fifty-four stops in cities across North America. Among the artists representing Roc-A-Fella Records and The Island Def Jam Music Group is Grammy award winner Jay-Z, the man behind the tour, as well as fellow rap artists DMX, Method Man, Redman, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, Ja Rule, DJ Clue and Amil.

As the tour makes its way from city to city, we see various bits of concert footage as well as how the artists react to varying behind the scenes incidents and material including groupies, clashing egos and just goofing around.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
People have long argued about exactly what constitutes art. For example, does a balled up piece of paper or paint thrown onto a canvas equal the works of a Monet or Norman Rockwell? Does the intent of that paper balling or thrown paint make the difference? That debate will probably never be answered to a point of satisfying everyone, and the subcategory of music as art falls into the same quandary.

What's nothing but noise to some listeners is literally and figuratively music to others' ears, and if there's any one form of music that best fits that description, it's rap. Created in the late 1970s and usually featuring a DJ mixing snippets of prerecorded and/or synthetic music while a rapper sings or recites rhymed, syncopated lyrics, rap has come into its own in the intervening years, with various artists, such as Will Smith, Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Snoop Doggy Dogg selling millions of albums.

With its success has come plenty of controversy - due to many of the rappers' songs containing sexually explicit lyrics and dealing with gangs, drugs and crime - and many have tried banning such artists and their albums. Of course, one must realize that people wanted to ban Elvis and the Beatles back in their early years, whereas today they're deemed rather inoffensive. As such, comedian Dennis Miller might be right in his audio recording, "I Rant, Therefore I Am," where he states that in the future people will undoubtedly hear Muzak versions of rap songs while riding in elevators.

Considering such controversy, however, one would imagine that the style of music, its artists and their songs would make for an interesting film. Unfortunately, director Chris Fiore's unimaginatively titled documentary, "Backstage," isn't, nor is it likely to change anyone's view on the music and its artists. Following the multi-rapper "Hard Knock Life Tour" that traveled via bus across North America in 1999, the film shows various backstage antics, on the spot interviews and footage from the concerts themselves.

Since the world of rap music is rather foreign to most mainstream moviegoers who aren't big fans of it, a documentary unveiling and depicting the music and the artists would seem like a perfect fit. Yet, where documentaries from the likes of Errol Morris ("Gates of Heaven," "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control") and others such as "Beyond the Mat" and "Trekkies" gave us insightful, in-depth examinations of people involved with various subjects (such as professional wrestling and "Star Trek" fans), this film fails miserably at just that.

Sure, it shows the typical arguments and clashing egos, as well as the goofing around and other backstage shenanigans that have occurred ever since the first rock 'n roller went on tour and attracted the first groupies. Alas, none of it's interesting and very little of it's insightful. For every moment where a rap artist seems to drop their guard and talk about what got them where they are today and what it's like to be them, there are far more where these young men are simply portrayed as lewd, crude and/or rude.

While that might and probably will appeal to the film's target audience, it comes off as nothing more than a filmed promotional package for the industry and its artists. That really shouldn't come as much of a surprise since Roc-A-Fella Records and The Island Def Jam Music Group are the two entities behind the documentary, which is the equivalent of the tobacco or firearm industries making a "documentary" about their business and players.

That said, none of those involved are shown in what would normally be called a positive light, but that seems to be the point since that's part of what their fans appear to enjoy about them. Nonetheless, I kept waiting and expecting to see one or more of the rappers as they truly are when away from the hype and posing, much like occurred in "Beyond the Mat" with the wrestlers who turned out to be far more complex and interesting than one would have imagined.

Unfortunately, that never happens here, either because Fiore chose not to explore that aspect, or perhaps simply because these rappers are just being themselves. If that's true, it's far sadder than this documentary's failure to shed any new light on the business or those involved in it.

It is hard to say how much control Fiore had over the film in either its raw shooting or final edited form (for which he was also responsible). Whatever the case, he can't or doesn't do enough with what's present to make any of it interesting. Without a narrator to explain things or provide some sneaky, post-filming humor, the director resorts to inserting various archival or new cartoon footage, presumably to jack up the proceedings. They don't do much other than distract the viewer, and as a result, the film plods along from the get-go and ends up feeling much longer than its relatively short eighty some minute runtime.

As far as the music is concerned, it you're into the rap/hip-hop scene, you'll probably enjoy what you hear. Conversely, if you're not a big fan, this film won't change your mind. I have to side with comedian Steve Harvey in "The Original Kings of Comedy" where he attacked the rap industry for a lack of talent and the bastardization/degradation of African-American music.

Yes, music lies firmly in the ear of the listener, but the likes of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Prince and many other singer/songwriter/performers must have kicked themselves for spending so much time crafting their music when they could have simply grabbed a mike, shouted "nigger" and as many profanities as possible -- usually in a loud, unintelligible fashion - and still made millions.

While I'm sure there are rappers out there who are talented musicians, good singers and overall decent people, this documentary certainly doesn't expose them to the mainstream moviegoer as such. Boring, less than educational and seemingly nothing more than an insider promo piece, "Backstage" is a lackluster documentary when it could have been so much more. It rates as just a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed August 30, 2000 / Posted September 6, 2000

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