In July 2004, concert promoter Chang Weisberg organized a hip-hop festival in San Bernardino, California, headlined by the reunited Wu-Tang Clan, the legendary supergroup infamous for its no-shows on tour. The RZA, the GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, and Method Man, plus unofficial member Cappadonna: It was a gathering of the gods, nearly as inconceivable as a set by the Beatles, including the dead ones. Corralling every member of this supremely unreliable crew onto the same stage at the same time was challenge enough; nailing down Big Baby Jesus qualified as a superhuman achievement even before the notoriously unpredictable MC holed up in his hotel room, immobilized on crack.
Whether Ol' Dirty can get his shizat together long enough to rock the mic (or just stand up without help) is the least of Weisberg's problems in Rock the Bells, an electrifying, occasionally terrifying documentary by filmmakers Denis Henry Hennelly and Casey Suchan. Condensed from 200 hours of fly-on-the-wall footage, it follows the event from (naive) planning to (inadequate) preparation, to (sloppy) execution, to imminent disaster as thousands of frustrated Wu fans threaten to riot. Think Dave Chappelle's Block Party booked on United 93.
Kicking off with a behind-the-scenes glimpse of nuts-and-bolts concert promotion, Rock the Bells (co-produced by Weisberg) initially appears to be of little interest to anyone but hip-hop nerds seeking dope organizational strategies. Hang the posters like that, yo! On the legal tip, Weisberg dons his best XXXL T-shirt to reassure the authorities that a large gathering of hip-hop fans does not necessarily entail obscene quantities of weed. There's a charming mom-and-pop quality to his company, Guerilla Union, whose staff consists of a feverishly multitasking honey named Carla Garcia and a bug-eyed stress case named Brian Valdez. They've got passion out the ass, which is super-nice for them, and a lot of phone calls to make, which is rather dull for us. Talking-head interviews with select Wu keep the momentum going, as Rock the Bells heads toward the big dayand into the pantheon of classic concert docs.
The kids start lining up, the talent starts arriving, and Weisberg starts to get nervous. "It's like we're planning this wedding and you hope the groom shows up." The camera crew jumps into a van to fetch warm-up act Redman from the airport. "How you 'spect me to do an interview if you don't send no herb?" He ain't playin': Add the hunt for Redman's herb to Weisberg's plate. Meanwhile, some wack white dude called Eyedea "flows" over screeching avant-garde turntablism by DJha!Abilities, and the crowd has massed into the thousands. It soon becomes clear that what little security there is will be woefully inadequate as well as incompetent, but with beaucoup Wu to handle, and the ODB crisis heating up (or rather, passing out cold), Weisberg is overwhelmed. Freestyle genius MC Supernatural takes the stage and earns his name with a jaw-dropping set abetted by his young son Haj. Dilated Peoples step up only to set aside the mic until the beyond-capacity crowd settles down. Women are fainting at an alarming rate in the front rows. ("Heads by the score take flight incite a war," Deck prophesized on Wu-Tang Forever;"Chicks hit the floor, diehard fans demand more.")
Tension reaches a fever pitch. Security fumbles as the crowd bum-rushes the entrance. Weisberg hustles his motherand his moneyaway from the venue. The signature song of Rock the Bells might have been the Wu banger "C.R.E.A.M." (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) had the clearance fees come cheaper from the RZA. Immortalizing a great moment in hip-hop history, Hennelly and Suchan also expose its dark side. Ignored in the chaos of the moment, they eavesdrop on the RZA's efforts to lure ODB from his hotel with an extra five grand. "Cause yo, son, this is business right here. This is serious business, know what I mean?"
Pitched on the edge of full-blown riot, Rock the Bells builds tension in its final half-hour until . . . The outcome of the event is a matter of history, best not spoiled here. Four months after the show, ODB collapsed in the Wu-Tang studios, dead from an accidental overdose of painkillers and cocaine. For all the bullshit and bad behavior on view, this nerve-racking knockout of a film pays testament to the passion of the Tang, and to the memory of the loose-cannon lyricist who never lived to see his lyrics born. "Wu! Is coming through! At a theater near you! And get funk like a shoe! What?"
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