Throughout Jay-Z's Fade to Black, the rap superstar talks about the importance of making his final album great, and about how big his November 2003 concert at Madison Square Garden needs to be. Both are profiled in the film. It would have been nice if the man they called Jigga, put a little of that focus in helping to make an absorbing chronicle of those heady times. Fade to Black, for all of the cultural hoopla involved, isn't much different from a concert DVD with some extra footage thrown in.
I'm sure fans of Jay-Z will be enthralled as his improvised rhymes and speedy eloquence join forces with an array of talent from the hip-hop community, including Missy Elliott, R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, and Pharrell Williams. Everyone else will feel like they're watching a movie that's perpetually halfway over.
Directors Patrick Paulson and Michael John Warren don't delve into the importance of two major events in the artist's life, or even introduce you to Jay-Z and his crew. Forget about learning why Jay-Z is retiring from a solo career that has led to a ridiculous amount of success, or what's it like organizing the talent for such a huge concert, or what the artist means to the fans who are able sing the lyrics (in unison) for minutes on end. Those avenues are ignored, but you are privy to lots of performance clips, sandwiched between shots of jiggly female fans and backstage bloopers (Usher leering at a girl; Foxy Brown having trouble fastening her corset). It's a fair trade, I guess.
The footage of Jay-Z putting together the Black Album is almost sleep inducing, with the star subject (who's about as chatty and revealing as Helen Keller) offering broad platitudes to his collaborators, while dropping a line or two about finding inspiration for the tracks. Considering all the access, we get precious little information that we wouldn't read in several music magazines or by watching MTV for a few weeks. Fans of Jay-Z, I ask you this: Don't you want more?
A friend of mine, who follows hip-hop closer than I do, says it's an industry where you constantly need to stay in the public eye. Fade to Black is a casualty of that marketing mindset, a shoddy, glossy, quickly released product that gives fans what they want: hit tunes and hot stars. In releasing this movie just a year after the concert, it doesn't give Jay-Z's accomplishments any perspective, or offer the public a chance to appreciate his absence. Keep in mind, Jay-Z hasn't kept a low profile, despite his "retirement." His recent, failed tour with R. Kelly made headlines nationwide, and he released a controversial music video not too long ago. Time needs to pass, so his place in music history can be cemented. And Jay-Z, who survived a Brooklyn projects childhood to launch his own business empire, deserves more than this incomplete and unrevealing slog of a bio to serve as his legacy.
Early in the movie, the enigmatically named ?Love, the excellent drummer for Jay-Z's backing band, reveals how the star told him to approach the show like he was playing in Boston. The people behind Fade to Black mustn't have listened. Everyone else is in New York; the filmmakers are playing the lounge at the Boston Holiday Inn.
The DVD includes surprisingly few extras, including a video, one deleted scene, and a short behind the scenes featurette (odd, since the whole film is "behind the scenes.")