Paramount // 2004 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 23rd, 2005
The ultimate concert. Now the ultimate movie.
His real name is Shawn Carter. He goes by many aliases: Jay, Hov, Hova, Jigga, and Iceberg Slim. Millions of fans simply know him as the most important figure in rap since the untimely deaths of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. After nearly a decade and a half "in the game," he has grown in stature and significance. He is now president and CEO of Def Jam Records, proprietor and founder of the Roc-A-Fella empire (which includes Roc-A-Fella Records, Roc-A-Fella Films, and Rocawear), and part owner of the New Jersey Nets. Now, after years in the limelight, and more success than he could possibly imagine, he is opting for a prolonged sabbatical away from the microphone. As a swan song, he is playing Madison Square Garden in a career-canvassing concert that brings together almost every heavy hitter in the field of modern hip-hop. And like any great last gasps, the title says it all. Jay-Z is bringing his days as a performer to a close. End of Story. Fade to Black.
Incredibly entertaining, just a wee bit self indulgent, and highly emotional at times, Jay-Z's farewell performance in front of a screaming, dancing throng of his devoted fans makes for a sensational, if occasionally shallow, concert experience. Anyone coming into Fade to Black looking for a definitive statement about either Jay-Z, or the state of rap in general, should perhaps focus their efforts elsewhere. This is not Stop Making Sense, or a terrifying tell-all like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Instead, what we have here is a flat-out celebration, a chance to give Jay-Z's admirers one final forum in which to witness their main man's amazing skills before he slinks off to a life as a businessman and entrepreneur. One can mistakenly view this as an energetic and expensive ego trip, a chance for an already self-important artist (one of his nicknames comes from "Jehovah," the Hebrew name for God) to bang his own drum one more temperamental time. Instead, Fade to Black acts like a repayment of sorts, a way for a rather insular superstar to give back to the people who made his stunning universal success possible.
As with most rap concerts, this is a greatest-hits showcase, with the famous songs sometimes getting the slightest of sonic workouts before being cut short, or merged into another well-known track. But one has to credit a performer who digs back into the early days of his catalog to present his pre-superstar days. That being said, Jay-Z's live backup band, ?uestlove and the Illadelphonics are fabulous, bringing a definitive old-school flare and frantic funk to every number offered. And Fade to Black is loaded with guest stars. Not only do we get to see Jay's current lady love (at least as of 2003, when the show was filmed), the ebullient Beyoncé jiggle and gyrate through three of her own terrific tunes (including a particularly amazing version of "Crazy in Love"), but Missy Elliot, Foxy Brown, R. Kelly, Ghostface Killah and the queen of hip-hop R&B herself, Ms. Mary J. Blige (truly a special talent), help Jigga out. As the band bops and sways, the pairings plow through several of the crackjack collaborations that made this Brooklyn boy a major force in music. Along with several members of the Roc-a-Fella roster, this is not just a send-off for a sensational rapper, but a reminder of how dense and deep the entire urban genre goes.
Buffering the concert footage is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Jay-Z's (supposedly) final CD, which was released under the title The Black Album. It is intriguing to watch Jay work, since he is one of the few rappers who does not write. Instead, he uses a freestyle motif in the studio, drawing imagination and inspiration from the tracks he hears, and then feeding that fuel into a genius ability with rhyme. He ad-libs and shapes the words through constant takes before the mic, getting every last line right. Seeing him hang out with production dynamos like Timbaland (who proves that he still has a startling catalog of beats waiting to be heard), The Neptunes, Kayne West, and Rick Rubin (giving "99 Problems" the proper polish) adds heft and context to the performances we see and hear. Realizing that this worshipped performer, this intense and articulate rapper, creates his classics directly in his head puts a whole new spin on the stunning live logistics of Jay-Z's art. Combined with the backstage tributes from such old-school icons as Slick Rick, P. Diddy, and others, you get an overall view of what Jay-Z meant to rap, and how his absence will leave a larger than expected hole.
Indeed, Jay-Z seems to be one of those planetary figures, a star so bright that he attracted all manner of important and influential satellites around him. Moving up to the boardroom is a natural step for this artist, since he 's more than laid the foundation for the journey through numerous singles, countless albums, dozens of videos, and hundreds of concerts. Going out on top is nothing new, but in Jay-Z's case, he is only headed for higher peaks. Watching him command the stage, spitting out intricate couplets that complain of crime, harbor hopelessness, and aim to empower, makes you realize why he is so successful. This is a man meant to be a leader, someone who you naturally listen to and want to follow. Certainly, as a cementing figure in hip-hop's supplanting of all other musical forms in the post-modern culture, Jay-Z is important. But after watching Fade to Black, you'll understand why he was such a symbol. While he may disappear from the pop charts, his influence will continue for decades to come -- both on and off the soundstage.
Fade to Black has been given a great DVD presentation by Paramount, starting with a remarkable 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The concert footage, captured in color, is bright and brassy, and even with all the fancy lighting and video backdrops, the transfer never resorts to flaring or bleeding. The footage of The Black Album's sessions, captured in shades of gray, is equally evocative. The contrasts are crisp and the details delivered in remarkable clarity. More importantly, however, the soundtrack here is astonishing. The Dolby Digital 5.1 presents a true immersive experience, with the audience seemingly teeming around you as Jay-Z performs. This is not a bass-heavy, subwoofer workout. The mix is modulated exceptionally well, allowing the vocals and the various instruments equal place in the spatial ambiance. There is a stereo track as well, but the channel challenging version is the definite way to go.
As for extras, Paramount includes a few valuable added features, steering away from the bare bones of the past. We are treated to a 30-minute making-of entitled "The Story Behind Fade to Black." It's mostly talking heads and testimonials, but we do learn why Jay-Z wanted to "retire" and what his impact has been on other artists in the rap field. The sole deleted scene from the movie is a 10-minute argument over the mixing of The Black Album, and it's interesting to see the amount of emotion expended over this one issue. Add in a concert music video for "Encore" and a trailer, and you've got a good DVD package that avoids substantive context to more or less complement the overall production.
Some still feel that Jay-Z is merely crying wolf. They imagine that life as a CEO will eventually grow dull and draining, and the only conceivable relief from the routine will be the adrenalin rush of performing. But, for now, we have to take the man's word...and what an amazing statement it is. Love him or hate him, you can't deny Jay-Z's and Fade to Black's power. While it may not transcend its trappings, this is still a fun, frenzied send-off for a truly gifted man.
Review content copyright © 2005 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Making-Of Featurette: The Story Behind Fade to Black
* Deleted Scene
* Encore Music Video
* Roc-a-fella Records Official Site
* Jay-Z Fan Site
* Def Jam Official Site