In 2003, Brooklyn rapper Jay-Z (a.k.a. Shawn Carter) called it quits after an eight-year career. Compared to most rap artists, he ruled the charts and the airwaves for an eternity. His final album, "The Black Album" (2003) was meant to be a farewell to his fans, and now this feature film documents his final concert, a huge, sold-out affair in Madison Square Garden.
"Fade to Black" presents the show itself -- with guest appearances by Beyonce (Jay-Z's highly publicized girlfriend), Mary J. Blige, Ghostface Killah (from the Wu-Tang Clan) and Missy Elliot -- as well as behind-the-scenes footage during the making of the album.
A concert can be filmed in only so many ways, and directors Pat Paulson and Michael John Warren go with the usual technique, using way too many shots of the audience rapping along with Jay-Z's lyrics. On the big screen, however, they manage to capture the hugeness and excitement of this grand show. The sound is bold and intoxicating, but the words are often muffled; it helps if you already know the songs.
Unfortunately, at 107 minutes, the concert tends to lag, especially since Jay-Z slips offstage from time to time for costume changes.
The film's studio footage is far more interesting. Watching Jay-Z in action commands a certain respect. When he visits legendary producer Rick Rubin (who virtually started the rap industry with the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC), Rubin marvels at Jay-Z's ability to "write" his rhymes without actually writing anything down. Another technician boasts that the rapper can keep up to 30 songs in his head at once, like a human iPod.
One of my favorite recent CDs is DJ Danger Mouse's remix of "The Black Album," which replaces all the backing tracks with music from the Beatles' "White Album." Dubbed "The Grey Album," it adds a certain autumnal finality to the music, as if ghosts rising up from rock 'n' roll's past have scooped Jay-Z up and carried him off into the dusk.
In a way, "The Grey Album" goes farther in explaining the rapper's retirement than this film does. In all his time on camera, Jay-Z never reveals his feelings about retiring. He never seems sad, conflicted or relieved. We have no idea what made him want to retire or what he plans to do next.If he never comes back, which isn't likely, this film will be a reminder of his talent. But if he does, "Fade to Black" will serve merely as a souvenir for those who made it to the big show.