Case Number 15026: Small Claims Court


BET // 2008 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // November 17th, 2008

The Charge

The official authorized story.

The Case

Authorized? Yes. Definitive? Hardly. It makes sense that Gerald Barclay, the director of Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan, was handpicked by the group to tell their story. After all, he grew up with the group members and directed Wu-Tang's first video, "Protect Ya Neck" (included as a bonus on this DVD). The group's story, however, is not the whole story. It's bad enough that too much is left out and ignored. What's worse is that the little content that remains is sloppy and unfocused. It's a shame that this documentary is so mishandled, because if any group deserves to have its story told, it's the Wu-Tang Clan. Any group with nine members surely has a lot of history to be related, but this DVD leaves out far too much of it.

Wu is at least an admirable experiment. The Wu-Tang Clan, starting with its debut album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993), influenced a generation of underground rappers. Its gritty, rough-edged sound was a deliberate antidote to the slick G-Funk of Dr. Dre's Death Row Records, which was popular at the time. In retrospect, Wu-Tang's sound, mostly assembled by group mastermind the RZA, would be far more enduring and seminal, and the group would retain credibility even as many of their contemporaries fell into obscurity or became increasingly irrelevant megastars. Moreover, the RZA, joined by rappers Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, the GZA, Raekwon the Chef, Masta Killa, Ghostface Killah, U-God, and Inspectah Deck (with occasional contributions from associates like Cappadonna and Killah Priest) were not only famous as a group but would also emerge as individual stars in their own right. Though the group would suffer a severe setback with the drug-related death of ODB in 2004, Wu-Tang would band together, recover, and continue to make creditable music.

So yes, this is a significant story worthy of a documentary. Maybe someday someone will make one, because Wu isn't even close. By far the biggest failure in Wu is that the Wu-Tang Clan is barely in it. There are some performance clips and music videos, and much of its music is heard. The brief interviews with the actual group members themselves, however, are almost all taken from mid-'90s TV appearances. Apart from a few new snippets with the RZA, Raekwon the Chef, and Cappadonna, all of the new interviews here are with associates, hangers-on, and journalists, few of whom are particularly insightful or interesting. Most of their comments are either useless fawning or cryptic proclamations, and they don't seem to have much knowledge of how certain turning points in the group's career actually happened. The archival interviews are somewhat illuminating, but because Barclay frequently doesn't put these into any context, either with his narration or with comments by other interviewees, it's hard to gather what exactly is true or significant from them.

The lack of explanation isn't Barclay's only failure as a documentarian. He spends far too much time on himself, especially at the beginning of the film. Presumably, anyone who picks up this disc is more interested in hearing about the Wu-Tang Clan than about when and how Barclay decided to be a director, but you'll hear more about the latter than the former. Barclay also continuously inserts himself into this story for no good reason. In several sections, he gives his impressions of events in the Clan's career, rather than letting viewers form their own ideas. This sort of pointless editorializing just makes Wu infuriating.

The section on the death of Ol' Dirty Bastard epitomizes many of Wu's flaws. This section has no input from any of the group members themselves, apart from a line from the RZA at the end. Most of it consists of footage of ODB from a celebratory dinner he held the night he was released from prison for drug possession only months before his death. None of the interviewees actually explain exactly what happened to ODB, such as why he was arrested and jailed, or why he was under such pressure to record and tour when he wasn't ready. Barclay talks constantly over the footage, giving his opinions on ODB's mental state rather than letting viewers form their own conclusions. Plus, this section is so long that it shortchanges other important stories in Wu-Tang's career. For instance, only the writing and recording of Wu-Tang's first two albums, Enter the Wu-Tang and Wu-Tang Forever (1997) are explored. None of the group's other albums, or any of their solo recordings, are discussed or even mentioned.

Wu's failures are all the more evident in the few parts that are worth watching. There is some great footage of Wu-Tang performing in Hawaii in 1997, just after the release of Wu-Tang Forever. These performances give an accurate portrayal of how good Wu-Tang could be on those occasions when the group could get its act together. There is also some interesting video shot during one of Wu-Tang's earliest performances, showing the group in its raw embryonic stage. Even though the performance and technical quality are not the best, Wu-Tang Clan's skills are clearly visible even then. In unearthing this footage, Barclay has done Wu-Tang's fans a favor. It's just a shame that he couldn't put more effort into making this a better overall film rather than just an assembly of interesting snippets padded with forgettable filler.

The full-screen transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix are both acceptable with no flaws, although why the image has black bars to simulate letterboxing is a mystery. The extras, apart from the video, consist of extended interviews with the RZA, Raekwon, Barclay, and ODB's widow Icelene Jones. Though the RZA clips merely cut together all of his remarks in the main feature, the Raekwon and Icelene clips do help fill in some holes left in the documentary. The Barclay interview is rather disconcerting. Though Barclay's intentions were clearly honorable, the gulf between the film he intended to make and the film he actually made is so wide that many will simply wonder how he could have gone so far off track. Wu-Tang fans might find some useful parts to Wu, but the actual content is so sparse that they will probably consider it a big letdown. Anyone who isn't as familiar with the group will simply find much of this film an impenetrable mess. Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan is guilty of not telling the story it set out to do.

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Scales of Justice
Judgment: 60

Perp Profile
Studio: BET
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Extended Interviews
* "Protect Ya Neck" Music Video

* IMDb

* DVD Verdict Audio Interview - Method Man