New York

Things I Learned Watching Rock the Bells

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Hard as hell

Rock the Bells is a total DVD movie; it played for a couple of weeks at the Two Boots Pioneer in New York and maybe a couple of other screens, and that was it. But, really, that’s fine; the documentary, about one concert promoter’s attempt to get every single Wu-Tang member together for a 2004 show in California, doesn’t devote much time to the actual spectacle of the concert. It’s about the nuts-and-bolts frustrations that went into the transcendent moment, and so its smaller stories play better on the small screen. A few minutes into the movie, it’s painfully apparently that promoter Chang Weisberg is a total fucking masochist. In attempting to get every single Wu-Tang member together on the same stage at the same time, he’s willfully descending into a hell of missed connections and byzantine excuses and general confusion. For me, this was sort of cathartic. About a year and a half ago, I tried to interview as many Wu-Tang members as I could for a Voice feature about their brief reunion tour. That’s nothing like the herculean task that Weisberg gave himself, of course, but it gives me some firsthand experience with how maddening and ultimately rewarding an experience it can be to deal with the Wu-Tang dudes. I waited for an hour outside a diner for a no-showing Inspectah Deck. I spent four hours at the “Back Like That” video shoot before Ghost could give me ten minutes. I called Cappadonna’s cell phone number for two straight weeks before finally wising up and using my own cell phone so that the 410 area code would show up on his caller ID. I got shot down by like five different members after someone’s manager emailed around an overly snarky blog entry I’d written. And despite all that, or maybe because of it, that Wu-Tang feature turned out to be one of my favorite writing experiences ever; the mere fact of its existence felt miraculous. Rock the Bells is a tense and harrowing movie, but I still had a lot of fun watching it, partly because it’s really good and partly because it’s a lot easier to watch someone else trying to deal with all the Wu-Tang dudes. Here are some things I learned watching the movie.

• If you compare Rock the Bells to older concert docs like Woodstock or whatever, it’s positively dystopian. In Woodstock, when the fence falls and fans start sneaking in, the organizers seem to welcome it: this way, more people can share in the experience and they can’t do anything about it anyway so what the hell. When the teeming masses outside the show in Rock the Bells finally squeeze through the fences in Rock the Bells, Weisberg runs back and forth screaming “No! No!” Here, the audience is a problem, one of many. There’s a serious livewire tension to the scenes where Weisberg and his underlings run around spastically trying to get the Wu-Tang guys onstage before the crowd riots. The movie opens with a late-night post-show diner meeting, Weisberg musing that he’d seen people at their worst. All the work that Weisberg puts into the show seems to be a product of personal obsession instead of an impulse to bring a magical experience to as many people as possible.

• There’s no actual Wu-Tang music in the movie; it’s pretty much beside the point. Instead, we get a bunch of talking heads effusing about how great and important Wu-Tang is, and that’s really all we need. I doubt that anyone not already familiar with the group will even see the movie, but those hypothetical viewers wouldn’t understand the greatness of this group through a few thirty-second song-fragments anyway. Instead, they’ll see thousands of people crammed into an overcrowded hangar, enduring endless delays and awful opening acts just to see this group. When the group does finally take the stage at the end of the movie, the picture fades out. The show is actually happening, and that’s all we need to know.

• Funniest scene: an interview with ODB’s post-prison manager, a white guy with an oversized jaw and a turtleneck sweater. He’d been a VH1 shitworker who’d pitched an ODB reality show despite not having any contact with him or even listening to his music; he admits to preferring, seriously, Backstreet and N’Sync.

• My favorite moment: Cappadonna has missed two flights, and Weisberg and his associates try to figure out how they’ll deal. They book him on a later flight, but it doesn’t look like Cappa will be able to make it out for more than the last few minutes of the show. Weisberg figures out that he’ll get Cappa out about a half-hour earlier if he hires a helicopter to fly Cappa from the airport to the show. Someone asks Weisberg if it’s worth a couple thousand dollars to him to give Cappa a few more minutes onstage. Weisberg pauses, thinks for a second, and says, “Yeah.” I guess you can’t really promote a Wu-Tang show unless you’re a big enough fan to make insane decisions like that one.

• Eyedea and Abilities are terrible! There’s a scene of Abilities doing an endless wah-wah-pedal turntable-solo while the stage manager fumes impatiently on the side of the stage; I have to imagine I’d feel the same way if I was in the audience. And Sage Francis: hoo boy. We get to see this chump running around onstage in his underwear, wrapping himself in a stage-prop flag while the audience throws shit at him and you just know he thinks he’s Darby Crash. Good fucking god indie-rap sucks.

• There’s just a world of difference between all the shitty indie-rap opening acts and Redman and Wu-Tang, the acts on the bill who people evidently came to see, and so the movie turns into an accidental seminar on the importance of charisma over sanctimony, chaotic hardness over halfassed purist self-regard. Redman might hang out with Supernatural and Supernatural’s rapping son backstage, but they’re worlds apart.

• I sort of can’t believe the movie even exists, given how completely it demystifies the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s pretty hard for RZA to play enigmatic leader when he’s screaming at ODB on the phone, doing everything he can to coax him out of his hotel room. Even Wu-Tang has trouble dealing with Wu-Tang, and that’s almost certainly why we’ve gone so many years without a full-on Wu-Tang album. There’s new context here, too; the Rock the Bells dudes are now putting on successful and well-organized cross-country festival tours, and the Wu-Tang guys are still working with them; I guess that’s the happy ending we never get to see.

Voice review: Nathan Lee on Rock the Bells