The enjoyment of such fly-on-the-wall performance films depends entirely on how one relates to the artists and musicians involved. The slate here is certainly an impressive one: Jay-Z, Method Man, Redman, Eve, Memphis Bleek, Beanie Siegel, DMX, AML, DJ Clive, JA Rule and others. They fill the screen loudly; interacting, performing, joking, gambling, scoring and all the other things hip-hop icons presumably do out on the road.
Whether or not the resulting 80-odd minutes in the company of these artistes is well spent is another matter, for while Fiore's briskly edited debut film has plenty of movement and noise, there are few if any revelations to be had from the participants. The singers offer the camera a lot of communal horseplay, one or two tantrums, and some impromptu musing over the odd bag of grass, but little illumination in respect of their music or what really drives them to it. "(Its) what makes my music so real. 'Cos I do what I am talking about," opines one before disappearing into another hotel room, or onto an encounter with the inevitable groupies.
In fact, street-talk aside, the remarkable thing about Backstage is that it fails entirely to relate its participants to the tough society from which they originate, preferring instead to see them in the fairly sterile environments of hotel, concert hall and luxury coach. The urban inspiration of rap is acknowledged in a couple of explicit anecdotes, but the raw edge that feeds the music is mostly left outside. As the artists daringly play dice on the carpet (a cop looking nervously over at them from the watching crowd) or show off their tattoos, one still feels that a lot of their authentic power has been excluded, glimpsed only through the windows of their electric-curtained, multiple-screened tour bus. Fortunately the rappers are larger than life personalities, which somewhat makes up for this enervation. Most interesting are Memphis Bleek (big, somewhat intimidating and obstreperous), husky, hooded Redman, and the controversial DMX, whose passion for his dog at least gives him a private dimension which others lack.
DMX's well-honed physique is often on show as much as his pet, as he characteristically struts and strips to the waist to give each performance. Others sing with more clothes on but true to its name, the film contains a lot of on-stage footage, and few complete sets. It focuses most closely on those events of interest taking place when the public performances have stopped. Having said that, Fiore's camera is hardly unobtrusive. Although the relationship between lens and subjects is a genial one, there are no startling revelations. Participants remain slightly self-conscious, actively playing out macho postures before the lens, rarely objecting to its unrelenting stare, rarely admitting intimacy. Eve, the one female artist in view, is somewhat swamped by the testosterone on offer. Her understated presence is one of the most interesting things in the film; one wishes she could have been interviewed at more length, quietly away from the men, on her own account and not remain largely submerged.
As it is, the often raucous nature of the tour provides something of its own momentum, if without the sex, violence and drug excess suggested by the film's hype ('Complete and uncensored! Life on the road, in hotels and off stage in a way you've never seen before!'). Language is comparatively moderate, and the faces of those groupies who throw themselves at the stars - one accompanying them to the toilets for a blow-job (?) - tastefully obscured. In fact there is a suggestion that some of the guys are cowed by their peers although, after 53 high-octane shows, too much is probably too much. The presence of one or two high-placed record label executives (their cool, white faces oddly out of place) also implies that the filmed progress from Montreal to Denver may have been filleted en route to PR advantage, removing really controversial material perhaps, while leaving the requisite 'bad boy' labels harmlessly intact.
Those who enjoy the rap scene will relish a film that records so many Rock-a-Fella Record favourites in one place and on the road together, while others will discern 'flatness' to the proceedings, despite the permanent macho rowdiness. They will have to wait for the definitive account of a musical culture that is far angrier, disturbing and more interesting than shown here.
DVD extras include trailer, stills, music videos, sneak preview, and biographies and discographies.