Fade to Black

Like the city, he dazzles and eludes.

Here are my credentials for reviewing the documentary about Jay-Z's "farewell" performance in Madison Square Garden. Talk about "square": I am a student of language and literature (Ph.D. in English) and trained in rapid talking (licensed auctioneer), but I cannot repeat to you more than a half dozen words from this energetic and positive look at one of rap's icons. His glossing of "idiosyncrasy" for the audience was both a kindness and a putdown but at least understandable.

Although I saw Eminem's early Detroit life in "8 Mile" and connected with Metallica's challenges in "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," because of my inexperience with Jay-Z's music, I could not get past my ear's inability to hear the lyrics or even the dressing room and studio talk, a slight testimony to Bill Cosby's warnings about language. Yet, virtually everyone at that November 2003 concert knew every word of his songs. I am in the minority on this one.

Anyway, about a well-structured film I already have some idea. "Fade to Black" is a faithful rendering of the excitement and beat of the Garden show. With the likes of girl friend Beyonce (whose scantily-clad, lip-synching performance of "Crazy in Love" is worth the admission price), Mary J. Blige, and R. Kelly (before the rift) joining Jay-Z, the film relays the energy and synergy of performers who speak to countless hip-hop fans. It is also as good a billboard for his platinum-selling "Black Album" as he could get.

Therefore, because so much of the documentary is dedicated to the performance, little is allowed for getting to know the rapper and how he creates. That he does not write down his machine-gun lyrics is a rare insight (In "8 Mile" I loved the exhilaration of seeing and hearing young people fight with "vocabulary" rather than guns); that he cares about how his words effect his fans is sweet; what he does to shape the "tracks" into pop gold as he listens to them in the studio is never satisfactorily explained (and surely the most boring part of the film). "Metallica," for instance, has an accurate rendering of the rock group's long struggle to create its latest album. Perhaps an exploration of Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life" would have better taught us about this post-gangsta powerhouse. A documentary should teach; "Fade" mostly shows. Or maybe that's all there is.

As even I know, he reneged on the "farewell," remarkable because his other businesses such as his "Roc-a-fella" recording label and clothing line could have kept him busy for a lifetime. I suspect music is much better for his forsaking retirement.

Like the opening and closing aerial shots of New York at night, we are too far away to get close to understanding the performer. Like the city, he dazzles and eludes.