It's hard to decide what comes through most clearly in "Backstage" -- the power of hip-hop or the anger underlying it.
Filmed during last year's Hard Knock Life Tour, an all-star traveling rap and hip-hop festival featuring acts from Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam records, "Backstage" captures energetic performances from DMX, Method Man, Red- man, Ja Rule, Beanie Sigel and Amil.
But the movie catches serious fire when Jay-Z commandeers the stage, working the crowd and talking about what's happening.
For instance, the day after the Columbine shooting, he announces that half the tour's profits will be turned over to the victims. He's obviously enjoying his reputation as one of rap's elite.
In a tradition that goes all the way back to 1969's "Monterey Pop," the film showcases a bevy of young performers itching to push the rock 'n' roll envelope, to expand its boundaries and stake a claim to their own niche. There's a direct line connecting the Mamas and the Papas and Eric Burdon to Jay-Z and DMX, even if the days of peace and love seem way behind us.
But even more than the music, it's the anger behind that music that dominates "Backstage." Director Chris Fiore and his cameras roam freely, getting in people's faces and capturing performers in their hotel rooms, on the tour buses, in their dressing rooms and even, in one memorable sequence, in the men's room. There's considerable mouthing off about rough beginnings and even rougher endings; Tupac Shakur's name is invoked more than a few times. There are also plenty of groupies around to be abused, both verbally and sexually, just as there were at Monterey and Woodstock, although they didn't make it into the earlier documentaries.
Regrettably, few performances are shown in their entirety. Granted, attention spans have dwindled over the years, but have we reached the point where a concert film hardly ever includes a complete song? Fiore apparently decided he couldn't devote equal time to both the music and the attitude, so he opted in favor of the latter. He needn't have.
When the 54-stop Hard Knock Tour was announced (including a March stop in Baltimore), there was considerable speculation, bordering on fear, that it wouldn't come off without violence. It was believed that gangsta rappers couldn't tolerate each other long enough to share a stage, much less hotels and other mainstays of the touring life. But the tour went off without any major incidents, grossing more than $18 million. That those issues were raised explains much of the rappers' anger.
"I just found out it's normal to have the mosh pit at white rock shows," Raymond Grant, one of Redman's DJs, says on-camera. "People jump in, they dive in and lose their sneakers, they break their arms, break their lips, you know, they hit the floor. At a hip-hop show, if that was to happen, they'd shut it down."
Starring Jay-Z, Damon Dash, DMX, Method Man, Redman and Amil
Directed by Chris Fiore
Released by Dimension Films
Rated R (Language, nudity, sexual content, drug use)
Running time 87 minutes
Sun score ***