Paramount Studios presents
Fade to Black (2004)
"Every now and again, I step outside of myself and I just look at my life objectively. Sometimes I find myself saying, 'Who is that dude right there?' If you'd have told me 20 years ago that my life would be like this, I'm not sure I would have believed you."- Jay-Z
Stars: Jay-Z, Sean "P. Diddy"' Combs, Beyoncé, Memphis Bleek, Mary J. Blige, Foxy Brown, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott
Other Stars: Kayne West, Pharrell Williams, Rick Rubin, R. Kelly, Funkmaster Flex, Freeway, Beanie Sigel, Slick Rick, Twista, Tim Mosely, Ghostface Killah, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, Michael Buffer
Director: Pat Paulson and Michael John Warren
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language
Run Time: 01h:49m:55s
Release Date: 2005-04-05
DVD ReviewDon't let anybody tell you they love all kinds of music. No matter how open one claims they are, there's always going to be a style or two that just doesn't tame the brain. For me, the aural equivalent of Kryptonite comes in the form of either hard-core rap or thrash metal. I hate to sound like an old fogey, but even the most moderate, "hey dude, I think you might dig on this" samplings of artists from those racks of the CD store usually turns me off. Yet, here I sit admiring the virtues, artistry, and dedication of one of the legends of hip-hop doing his thing.
In 2003, rap legend Jay-Z announced that his then-forthcoming The Black Album would be his swan song at age 33. To commemorate the release, the Brooklyn native organized a superstar bash at his home state's most prestigious concert venue. On a November night of that year, Madison Square Garden became the center of the hip-hop universe for a memorable evening, much of it chronicled in Fade to Black, a terrific documentary that may very well become the genre's equivalent to Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz; co-directors Pat Paulson and Michael John Warren certainly uphold that legendary film's incredible finesse in capturing the spirit of a magic event in addition to unpeeling the inner workings of what makes its center attraction tick 'n' click.
Okay, I'll admit that I haven't rushed out and bought the man's complete catalog just yet, but what made this film work for me is that it's not concert video material masquerading as a high profile concert flick; in fact, Black began life indie-style, traveling around the art house circuit (in Paramount's recently introduced "Classics" line, to boot). In addition to the big draw of the concert footage, Fade to Black spends roughly half of its nearly two-hour running time on the creative process that fuels his fire, offering proof that much more goes into the art of creating the most memorable hip-hop and rap recordings. In fact, such peeks into the inner workings of Jay-Z's recording sessions for The Black Album rival the MSG sequences. Jay-Z goes through riff after riff from some of rap's heavy hitters including Pharrell Williams and recent Grammy wonder Kayne West, giving thumbs down to progressions that others would grab before the demos went silent. But it goes to show how settling for nothing less than perfection or having the patience to wait for what works or moves is the key to his success.
Another non-concert high point comes when the rapper travels west to Los Angeles in quest of some roots inspiration from one of the industry's greatest producers (and a creative rap mainstay himself), Rick Rubin (who also worked wonders with Johnny Cash in the country legend's final years). Instead of the expected flow of creative vibes from influence to long time fan, all the stringy haired, bearded future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shoo-in can do is offer a slight change in lyrical content, marveling at Jay-Z's knack for making up raps on the spot, barely using a nearby music stand for cheat sheet support. Also, in a genre where most image makers want their artist to project all but vulnerability, I found an interesting conversation between Z and several of his studio-crew and fellow rappers discussing how the industry sometimes paints its performers and audiences into a corner by concentrating on the negative aspects, which in turn determines what the public wants to hear very refreshing.
I hope I'm not making Fade to Black seem like an in-depth character profile with little in the way of musical proof; believe me, if you want high octane high points from the legacy of its star-attraction, it delivers big time. In addition to solo classics like Jigga What, Dead Presidents II and Hard Knock Life, there's superstar collaborations with the high-profile likes of Missy 'Misdemeanor' Elliott (Is That Your Chick?), Mary J. Blige (Can't Knock The Hustle), former Christmas card recipient R. Kelly (the now ironic Best of Both Worlds, especially after Jay-Z's participation in a disastrous I came out of retirement for this **** with the lawsuit plagued rapper months later) and his girl friend, some single name female vocalist you may have heard of named Beyoncé....I think the camera loves her. Duh!
Also, I have to salute the phenomenal cinematography by Jonathan Boehr, which is some of the finest for a concert film I've seen in ages...and I'll tell you why. I'm so sick of performance films that seem to think that the sole audience at a show is at the front of the arena next to the headliner...sick of shots of busty babes with artificial cleavage...sick of editing with no rhyme, rhythm or reason that looks like it was done by high school career day teenagers amplified on too much Coke (the cola kind....I hope). Together with great cutting by Ron Patane, Brett Mason and Buckley W. Morgan, you get a complete sense of rocking arena interaction from the floor seats all the way to nosebleed section 827 (which if my MSG calculations are correct, puts you geographically in the middle of Bayonne, New Jersey). There's even reaction shots of folks enjoying the show from just outside the entrance sections near the souvenir stands; I love it! If you want to know how a modern concert movie should look, here's your primer, film students.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
|Aspect Ratio||1.85:1 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: Given my accolades to the quality of the cinematography above, it's really no surprise that this transfer is just shy of perfection, particularly the colorful, well-lit concert sequences at the Garden. Only several videotape-to-film conversions of those sections centered in recording studio sessions keep this from attaining top grade honors.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 mix is incredible. One of the few concert discs I've heard that faithfully replicates an arena experience. Vocals and raps are locked in tight at the centers, the musical accompaniment is planted firmly at the side speakers while the rears get only the slightest of carry-over and an abundance of crowd noise that makes you feel a part of it all. Terrific accomplishment.
Audio Transfer Grade: A+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Keep Case
- The Story Behind "Fade to Black"
- Encore Music Video
- Deleted Scene ("Mastering")
A single deleted scene (Mastering; 05m:11s) takes us to New York's Baseline Recording Studios where Z is attempting to finish work on the pivotal (and already overdue) Black Album but gets caught up in the middle of a vicious argument between a member of the site's booking personnel and a member of his team (which he watches with hilarious bemusement). It's a highly watchable eavesdropping, reality show kind of outtake, but rightly excised from the film; it would have definitely felt strongly out of place amongst the final cut's mostly positive energy.
A theatrical trailer and music video (Encore; 03m:16s) highlighted by the novelty of tape-based visual angles from the MSG show intercut with celluloid from the final cut, complete a nicely done supplemental package.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsA musical film even non-rap and hip-hop fans will enjoy, Fade to Black is a well-executed documentary profiling one of the industry's most influential and creative personalities. Highly recommended.
Jeff Rosado 2005-04-14