Fade to Black

"That shit ain't hard, be the fuck you!"

In November 2003, hip-hop phenomenon Jay-Z took the stage in Madison Square Garden in what was purported to be his “farewell concert.” Seeing as the rapper is now back on tour — his feuding with R. Kelly, who also briefly appears in this film, has made headlines — you’ll forgive me for doubting that this was the man’s last hurrah. (I read somewhere that he’s “semi-retired,” which begs the question, what the hell does that mean?) But farewell or not, he did singlehandedly sell out MSQ, reportedly in a matter of minutes, bringing out scores of shouting, exuberant fans, most of whom seem to know the words to everyone of his songs. On the popular ones, he lets them do the chorus.

Fade to Black, the spare and riveting concert film by Pat Paulson and Michael John Warren, captures the energy and the distinctive feel of the event. If you like the music, it’s the next best thing to being there; if you don’t, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a culture that white-dominated Hollywood fears to truly broach. And if there’s still anyone who scoffs as rap as “not music,” well… if nothing else, this movie should prove that rap is difficult.

The show itself is filmed in a way that’s fluid and engaging, toeing the line between raw concert footage and sleek music video production. It was clearly a professional affair, with several cameras going at once; often, a second camera clue enters our line of sight. Far from resembling the airing of a sporting event, the camera moves seem to have been meticulously orchestrated; the filmmakers often wind up backstage and in the wings, and it all seems to come together in perfect, split-second chronology. I don’t know how much of that is sleight-of-hand, but watching it is an uncanny experience.

There are occasional forays into Jay-Z’s recording studio, and glimpses into his creative process, but by far the most fascinating part of Fade to Black is watching the audience react to the rapper and his superstar guests. Equal parts men and women, mostly young, far from racially homogenous, they sing, and dance, and yell even when the lyrics break every rule of political correctness known to man; certainly no one in Madison Square Garden that night cared about whether or not Jay-Z “objectified women.”

As this review likely showed, I’m as hopelessly out of touch with this subject as I was before seeing Fade to Black. It’s not any sort of primer on the hip-hop universe. Hell, the fact that I’m referring to it as a “universe” should show you how much I know, and also perhaps that I am a pompous ass. No matter. I liked this movie.

©2004 Eugene Novikov

-- Eugene Novikov

Fade to Black
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