Those who don’t understand the
significance of a full-scale Wu-Tang Clan reunion need only look at the body
language of the group’s fans when, after a tense and potentially dangerous
delay, they finally appear on-stage. It is an electrifying spectacle, befitting
the brazenly boastful hit single “Triumph” from their 1999 opus Wu-Tang
Forever, and it should be enough to convey
the import of the moment to anyone unfamiliar with their brief but legendary body
of work. This isn’t the Rolling Stones at Altamont – it’s bigger, and, at
times, just as scary.
Rock the Bells, the new documentary by Denis
Henry Hennelly and Casey
Suchan, captures the moment with stunning clarity, and though it offers a
richly satisfying climax, the journey to that point is anything but smooth.
When promoter Chang Weisberg first set out on his mission to reunite the
Wu-Tang for his 2004 hip-hop festival in San Bernardino, he knew he was up
against tall odds, given the Clan’s reputation for no-shows and infighting.
But, to paraphrase fictional Spinal Tap
director Marty DeBergi, he got more, much more, than he bargained for.
Among his headaches revealed in
the film: Inadequate security; local authorities who want no part of a hip-hop festival
and the drug culture they believe it promotes; impatient fans crashing the
gates; and at least one performer, Redman, who refuses to cooperate “without no
And that’s before one of the
Wu-Tang’s massive entourage drops the bomb: Ol’ Dirty Bastard, arguably the
most beloved and unquestionably the most troubled member of the Clan, has
passed out in his hotel room and cannot move. An intriguing power play ensues,
with Wu-Tang founder RZA (the only member who seems to grasp the gravity of the
situation, as thousands of fans seem poised to revolt if the Clan doesn’t go
on) begging and eventually bribing ODB’s handlers into producing their man. He
shows up, in body if not in mind, sitting atop a speaker with his eyes closed
for most of the band’s two-hour-plus set.
during the film’s final
hour, as momentum builds toward a reunion that remains in doubt until the
moment all nine original Clan members (with on-again, off-again contributor
Cappadonna) step to the mike, that Rock the Bells takes its place alongside the very best concert
documentaries. There are lighter moments that would feel right at home in
comedies like Spinal Tap, as when one
production assistant attempts to sum up his motivation for staging the show.
(“Chang has a vision,” he explains. “I don’t necessarily know what that vision
is.”) But there is real, gripping drama, too, reminiscent of even the peerless Gimme
It’s obvious from the start that
Chang is headed for trouble, given his naïve decision to discourage police
participation and his grossly undermanned security team. Indeed, violence casts
an almost palpable pall over the proceedings as the crowd surges and demands
the reunion it paid for, even as some of the main players saunter about
indifferently backstage. The ending is both a relief and remarkably
incident-free, but not without a heartbreaking postscript: Four months after
the Wu-Tang’s triumphant return, ODB overdosed and died in the band’s 36