Rock The Bells

Rock The Bells


Reviewed by: Chris

Rock The Bells is a documentary about festival producer Chang Weisberg who goes all out to re-unite the nine members of the infamous rap group, Wu-tang Clan. This is music from the ground up: the musicians, promoters - everyone involved - are very grass-roots without any big commercial machine to ensure success. Their thousands of fans inhabit a world that is a wide gulf away from anyone who can't listen to a rap song without worrying about the 'tune' or lack of it.

As with the early genesis of many music cultures, the music has not only to speak for itself, but to do so against all odds, against the ingrained prejudice of the established industry and the views of the mainstream community, and against the hubris and lack of business sense of many of its stars. But dreams always start larger than life, and they need to be extremely big to stand any chance of filling an enormous stadium at between $40 to $80 a ticket. They also need to be more than wishful thinking - Weisberg has re-mortgaged his house to set things up.

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There are a number of obstacles to making a film such as this so that it can appeal to people unfamiliar with (and those who have no interest in) the type of music under consideration. The storyline needs sufficient human interest; there must be at least some insight provided so non-devotees can relate to the art-form; it has to be coherent enough not to need specialised knowledge to follow it.

For Chang Weisberg, it is a labour of love. His manner and style is more accessible than the rappers who, especially off-stage, can affect so much dialect as to be near incomprehensible. His belief in the project helps to spark interest. His wife hopes it goes well, remembering how they lived with his mom for ages. We sense she would casually prefer not to go bankrupt but, whatever happens, she is 100 per cent behind her husband's mission.

Whether the film helps non-devotees understand rap is more debatable (bearing in mind that, as it will mostly attract fans, this is not an absolute requirement). Emotional insight was provided in the mainstream 8 Mile by building crucial elements of the storyline into the rap contest, allowing viewers to see that rap was about realism and poetry rather than songs where the words were relatively meaningless to a singer's life. Rock the Bells tries rather to let the lyrics stand on their own merit: an aggressive song called 'Makeshift Patriot,' if not fully comprehended, at least conveys a tangible sense of anger and political insurrection.

One shortcoming is that, in nearly two hours of sampling of the music and surrounding culture, there is little to counteract a commonly prevailing mainstream notion that rap music is sexist, racist etc-ist: the lyrics, like those of many early folk singers, are written in the dialect and from the social viewpoint of the subculture from which the music springs. Elements such as gun culture, police oppression and the ability to obtain work easily, take on a different context, as do slang words which, in mainstream culture, would be considered rude or offensive (strangely enough making the film potentially unsuitable for white middle class children as opposed to their underclass counterparts). This is an important factor, especially as it causes rap to be feared and denigrated by those who misunderstand it.

As an achievement in filmmaking, Rock The Bells is a deceptively polished work, capturing not only the build-up to a major music festival but also the chaos that ensues (and is eventually skilfully controlled) from inadequate (low-paid) security, ignorance of logistics, and fans kept waiting for three hours and exhibiting less than dharma-like patience. The tension is red-hot as, with the assembled throng straining at the gates, it is not even certain if the headliners will appear.

Rock The Bells is also a historic performance, being the last show by a particularly revered performer, Ol' Dirty Bastard. Perhaps this alone will ensure it is preserved until a day when a wider range of filmgoers will appreciate and enjoy it.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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Rock The Bells packshot
A concert promoter tries to reunite the Wu-Tang Clan.
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Director: Casey Suchan, Denis Henry Hennelly

Year: 2006

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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