|Thursday, May 28, 2015, 02:55:29 PM|
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Lightning in a Bottle/Fade to Black
Kind of blue: Lightning in a Bottle fails to deliver a history of the blues
There's huge up and down sides to Lightning in a Bottle. Director Antoine (Training Day) Fuqua's documentary of the February 2003 Radio City Music Hall show celebrating 100 years of the blues opens with a welcoming speech from co-producer Martin Scorsese. He tells us, "What we're going to try to do during this time is tell the story of this great music from its beginnings."
The trouble is, the film never does that. We get a plethora of veteran recording artists, and a healthy sprinkling of not-so-old talents as well. But the selections of songs are always arbitrary, and other than a few brief montages--a Deep South lynching here, a pic of a "whites only" water fountain there--we never get a sense of context for the music, let alone a beginning. The interviews are often little more than generic backstage banter.
Although the concert footage is not particularly well-shot (little has been thought out in terms of camera angles), the movie soars whenever we're treated to the likes of B.B. King, David "Honeybody" Edwards and Vegas' own Ruth Brown (who offers one of the film's few helpful observations about how the blues allowed troubled young black men to be emotional and still keep their dignity). Also impressive are the "youngsters": Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray.
We get a strong sense from these performances that the music is an irrevocable link from their souls to the outside world (something I don't think we get from, say, hip hop or opera). I wish the film had made some attempt to show us that link--and how the "movement" grew from the impoverished black South and spread to the industrial white North.
It's often said that the history of the blues is a history of America, and the lack of history in this sometimes musically breathtaking film is disappointing and perplexing.--Anthony Del Valle
The gift and the curse
Rock has long dominated the concert film, with hip hop not so much bringing up the rear as foregoing the endeavor completely. This isn't necessarily the rappers' fault--staging a hip hop tour is nothing short of a logistical nightmare, not helped by people in the industry and law enforcement that continue to stigmatize both performers and their fans. However, one of the genre's icons, Jay-Z, shot a behind-the-scenes documentary of his 1999 Roc-a-Fella tour and released it in 2000 as Backstage. So, when he became the first headlining rapper to sell out an arena--NYC's Madison Square Garden--in less than two hours, it made sense that he'd record the proceedings for posterity as well.
Fade to Black, like Backstage, breaks ground for the rap documentary in that, unlike Backstage, it is mostly a performance film. It might just be the first genuine concert flick to feature hip hop. Yet, by differentiating his new film from his old one, Jay-Z supposes his audience will want an essentially condensed version of his live show for the big screen. They might at first, but chances are, after a few numbers, the realization will hit that they're not getting as worked up as the crowd in the movie is. Part of this is rooted in the difficulty of getting that electric vibe from a pop show to translate to a movie experience. And part of it stems from Jay-Z, despite his many talents, or boasts to the contrary, lacking the charisma to be a true showman. At nearly two hours, Fade becomes a lot to ask of its viewers.
Luckily, the duration is made less cumbersome thanks to breaks involving the creation of 2003's The Black Album, Jay-Z's supposed final recording. His efforts in collecting beats, searching for inspiration, collaborating with hip-hop visionaries like Pharrell Williams and recording rhymes--from memory, no less--with legendary producer Rick Rubin are moments to cherish, as the rapper steps in front of his hardened faãade. More artistic revelation--and less narcissistic celebration--would have made Fade a worthy send-off.--Mike Prevatt