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Friday, December 12, 2008
  DVD Review: WU: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan

The Wu-Tang Clan was the first hip-hop group I really got into when I was in high school, when I was primarily into hard rock and heavy metal. (I was one of those generations who thought liking rock or rap was an either/or proposition; things have changed a lot since then.) I’d listened to rap when I was a kid, stuff like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (Will Smith’s old duo), but when I started to really get into music as a teenager, it was “alternative rock” and heavy metal primarily. But the Wu-Tang Clan was the group that re-ignited my love of hip-hop (and old-school kung fu movies), and I haven’t looked back since. Wu’s 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), is still one of my favourite records, and is rightly considered a classic album in the hip-hop pantheon. WU: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan, billed as “the official authorized story,” is a BET documentary chronicling the rise, fall and rebirth of one of music’s most complicated groups. As a Wu-Tang Clan fan, I found it pretty fascinating, but as a documentary, WU does have its share of flaws.

A lot of the most interesting stuff in WU: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan comes close to the beginning, when filmmaker – and childhood friend of several Clan members – Gerald “Gee-Bee” Barclay begins at the beginning. Because of Barclay’s relationship with the group, he has access to all sorts of cool footage from before they blew the doors off the hip-hop world. For a Wu fan, watching grainy camcorder footage The RZA and Method Man when they were unknowns, hunkered down in the smoke-filled studio writing rhymes, or watching Raekwon recording his vocals on the classic track ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, is pretty special. Barclay also includes interviews with the local DJs and industry folks who helped break the group as they reflect back on the impact the Clan had on the rap industry in the early ‘90s and their evolution into one of the most important hip-hop acts of all time.

Barclay also attempts to showcase the darker side of the Wu-Tang Clan’s success. Even though I’m a big fan of their music, I confess that I don’t read hip-hop magazines (or any music magazines, for that matter), nor do I frequent hip-hop news sites, so while I’ve heard many offhand references to inner feuds within the Wu family, I didn’t actually go into WU with any actual knowledge of what sort of inner turmoil the group has had to deal with (aside from the obvious 2004 death of founding member Ol’ Dirty Bastard). While I appreciate the effort Barclay makes, I still came away with WU with little more than vague notions of greed and jealousy causing rifts in a group already saddled with nine outsized personalities and egos. I gleaned was some new insights into the strife – when the group was first assembled on Staten Island (a.k.a. Shaolin), many guys in the group were from rival cliques, so dudes who spent one summer shooting at each other spent the next summer making music together in a studio, and some of those tensions never quite went away – but for the most part, I could have done with some juicier Behind the Music­-style gossip, but it feels like Barclay’s sense of responsibility to his old friends won out over his journalistic drive to give his viewers the whole story.

Some aspects of WU made me cringe. For one, the production quality is quite low, even by the standards of TV documentaries. It’s got a home-video feel to it, which isn’t really that bad, especially considering the subject matter – one of the things that makes early Wu-Tang music so great is a tangible sense of grime, a true underground vibe – but there’s a world of difference between less-than-perfect video quality aScrew guns. I'm scared of THIS guynd misspelling Quentin Tarantino’s name in an on-screen graphic (pretty inexcusable….did nobody seriously think to check Google or IMDB?). And the “fall” part of the “rise, fall and rebirth” of the Clan that the film ostensibly covers is basically relegated to ODB’s incarceration and eventual death from a drug overdose. Barclay does do an excellent job of conveying the tragedy in ODB’s (a.k.a. Russell Jones) situation, including video shot during a party thrown by family and friends to welcome him home from jail just weeks before he died. It’s pretty moving stuff, especially when you see Jones simply as a man surrounded by his loved ones, instead of the cartoonish, obviously-inebriated character he played on records, in videos and in interviews. Unfortunately though, the myriad other problems the group was going through, like the aforementioned infighting, is pretty much skimmed over with a few cursory (and clichéd) mentions of how money and success can bring out the worst in people.

But overall, as a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, I found WU quite compelling; it gave me a glimpse into a group that I didn’t really know that much about. It’s a great look at the legacy of one of the most important and influential groups in the history of hip-hop culture, and is a must-have for fans. It’s nowhere near the best rap documentary I’ve seen – that honour goes to the DJ doc Scratch, which I heartily recommend to anyone, regardless of your feelings about rap music – but it’s a lot better than a lot of low-rent hip-hop documentaries out there, and Barclay does get at some real stuff that lifts WU above just being a doc about how the Wu-Tang Clan is great; it gets at why. As a Wu-Tang fan, I enjoyed this documentary more than my grade might suggest, but speaking objectively, WU: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan is far from perfect. It’s a solid, if flawed, look at the most important rap group still making music today.



There’s a handful of interesting extras on the WU DVD; as per usual with documentaries, there are some extended interview segments with several interview subjects, including a much longer individual interview with Wu members Raekwon and The RZA. Also included is a featurette about ODB’s widow, Icelene, and, my personal favourite, the original, wonderfully low-quality music video for their first single, ‘Protect Ya Neck.’

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