Rock the Bells, a cinema verite-style ride through the production, promotion, and potential implosion of the 2004 hip hop concert of the same name, is starting to gather buzz at Tribeca as "the doc that spends 40 minutes trying to get a cracked-out Ol' Dirty Bastard out of his hotel." It is that film, for sure, but it's also at least three other things. It's a crash course in the dirty business of concert promotion; it's a primer on the storied history of Wu Tang Clan, who are not only one of the most significant hip hop acts, in creative terms, of all time, but are also responsible for taking the art of branding to a whole new level; and it's a love letter to fans and fandom that is so heartfelt, it bleeds through the boundaries of musical taste. Still, it would be hard to overstate the suspense that the Dirty situation lends to the film (which, at two hours, is slightly overlong but not fatally so). Directors Denis Henry Hennelly and Casey Suchan have themselves a poster-ready tagline in the film's first 15 minutes, when Chang, the concert promoter at the film's center, tells his assistant, "Anything with Dirty makes me nervous."
Ah, Ol' Dirty Bastard. The elusive rapper, convicted felon, sometime reality TV star, was a Wu-Tang Clan founding member, as well as its gravel-voiced comic relief. By 2004, Dirty (known variously as Dirt, Dirt McGrit, Joe Bananas, and Big Baby Jesus, amongst other nom de plumes) wasn't exactly in the best place -- for starters, he's got a pretty profound crack habit, not to mention a manager who is, to say the least, not ideally suited for the gig. And even though Dirty is technically confirmed to appear on stage at Rock the Bells with the other Clan members (there are at least eight of them; Cappadonna is referred to as "the unofficial tenth"), nobody, from his management to his bodyguards to the RZA and the GZA, has much faith that he'll follow through.
Hence Chang's nerves. But the promoter has other troubles, ranging from a skeptical sheriff's department; to the cash-counting habits of his ticket-booth manning mom; to a rapper who wants to work for weed; to a drunk, stoned, overheated, oversold crowd of obsessive Wu Tang fans who will "tear that place up if" the full Clan doesn't grace the stage; to an incompetent security team whose collective negligence threatens to turn Rock the Bells into a hip hop Altamont (or, at the very least, a hip hop Woodstock 3). Cameras follow Chang, his team, and select stars of the actual show, through it all, often capturing all six or seven sides of a given plot thread as it happens.
There's certainly some fat to cut, probably most of it early on, but there are some subplots here that are definitely too good to miss. One of my favorites involves the set of Sage Francis, a portly white guy in horn rims and a silver wig who performs with a microphone in one hand ... and a stalk of broccoli in the other. Calling himself "the Bill O'Reilly of hip hop" (his DJ: No Spin Zone), Sage ends his first song by dumping a sack full of broccoli bunches on the audience. Later, even after the audience has started throwing drinks at him, Sage takes off his pants and wraps himself in an American flag sprinkled with corporate logos instead of stars. He responds to a chorus of boos: "You can't hurt me when I got the flag." A novelty act, for sure, and not in anyway integral to the main narrative of the film, but I laughed my ass off.
A good deal of Rock the Bells is, in fact, laugh-out-loud funny, and even when it's not, it's still wait-to-pee entertaining. But it really kicks into gear when a hanger-on returns from Dirty's hotel with the report that ODB is in there, with a couple of crack rocks, a couple of dudes and a batch of girls, and he's got no intention of leaving. At that point, Rock the Bells turns into a genuine suspense film: we never get a glimpse of the situation in Dirty's hotel, but it's forever in our heads, and the filmmakers tease out the possibility that Dirty won't make it to the show as long as possible. The filmmakers don't have to do anything artificial to create tension – it's all there on the sweaty faces of the promoters, the performers, and most of all, the fans. "As a promoter," Chang says at one point, "I'm doing my job -- which is to oversell the venue." Whether the crowd actually gets what they paid for is, at least initially less important, until the point it becomes clear that if Chang asks that crowd to go home without their Wu Tang, he's probably not getting out of there alive.
It seems like the film has taken a while to surface, although I imagine that might have something to do with Dirty, and the fact that four months after the concert, he died. If Rock the Bells left me wanting for anything, it's proper doc on the death and life of Ol' Dirty Bastard. After all, this is the guy who, according to the manager, held a grudge against the rest of Wu Tang because they failed to rescue him from prison "with a bulldozer." There's got to be a good seven or eight hours to The Prison Years alone -- somebody get Ken Burns on the phone, stat.