I began watching Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: The Bad Boy Story with reasonably-low expectations. I don’t know why, exactly, they were so low, only that they were. Perhaps I figured this story had already been told; why would I want to hear it again?
I’m also skeptical of artist-produced documentaries. If the artists have creative control, whose to say they’ll resist painting themselves in the best possible light, especially if you’re Diddy and you’re arguably the most brilliant salesman in music history.
But then I started watching, and I was about 30 minutes into it, and there was all this archival footage of Bad Boy’s early days — Diddy as a young executive, the Notorious B.I.G., Junior Mafia, Lil’ Kim, Craig Mack, 112, Total, Mary J. Blige. And maybe it was the film’s direction itself, the way it was shot (mostly in black and white), the music, slow-motion sequences, and what the artists were saying, talking about this time long forgotten, things they had once did, records they had once made, people they had once been.
“I couldn’t sleep at night for years, because I would always dream about…” says Total’s Kima Raynor, alluding to the comeback. “I knew it wasn’t done.”
And then Diddy shows her a clip of Nina Simone, talking about Freedom. She says:
“It’s just a feeling. It’s like how do you tell somebody how it feels like to be in love — you can’t do it to save your life. You can describe things, but you can’t tell them. You know it when it happens. That’s what I mean by free. I had a couple times on stage when I felt really free, and that’s something else. That’s really something else.”
It was around this time that I began balling. Because though the Bad Boy story is one I’ve heard before, and perhaps, too, some of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop is hagiographical, I must say that I had never seen this music and these artists treated with this degree of care. No writer, no documentarian, no film director, had shown Bad Boy through this lens: that by making these records, getting on that stage, the artists were, in a sense, becoming the people that American society told them they could not be.
That is something you see as the film unfolds, because the documentary’s cause, ultimately, is the 2016 Bad Boy Reunion Tour, which Diddy and the acts only have a few weeks to prepare for. And so there is a lot that needs to happen in those weeks —some artists need to mend fences; others must reacquaint themselves with performing, period. For Diddy, he’s got to get into the kind of shape that will allow him to perform. He’s not unlike an athlete, well into retirement, plotting a comeback. The body needs to cooperate.
And when you see the way director Daniel Kaufman presents the artists at the end, when they’re performing, all fiery emotion and unbridled physicality, bodies contorting, microphones in hand, that freedom spoken about earlier is actually realized. Watching it, I kept thinking: this is the first time I’ve ever seen musicians, particularly hip-hop artists, presented this way. I got the feeling, and I don’t think it was unintentional, that the artists were to be seen almost like super heroes, which they most certainly were (and arguably still are).
The rest of the film is unflinchingly candid. I mean, there is even a scene where Diddy gets what appears to be an anti-inflammatory shot in his ass, because his body is not holding up its end of the bargain. He’s also seen gearing up to perform, reciting mantras, while dancing to James Brown: “When you’re in the spirit, nothing else matters — out of my brain, and into my heart. Out of my brain, and into my heart.” He talks to Voletta Wallace on the Notorious B.I.G.’s birthday, asks her to say a prayer for him. “Not just tonight,” she says. “I’ll do it tonight and tomorrow and always.”
All of it adds up to a very powerful portrait of a man and his company, trying to overcome a kind of adversity that, no matter how many hit records you once had, no matter how much money you once made, no matter how much you can’t stop, or won’t stop, you cannot avoid — Time. Yes, time. Because it keeps passing by and generations come, generations go, and eventually, people forget what you did, forget who you were, and new records are made, new songs are sung, and nobody remembers, because it’s music and it’s pop culture, and it’s brash and it’s beautiful and it’s black, and people once loved it, an entire generation, but for some reason, in American society, that doesn’t seem to matter.
So, big up to Diddy for telling his story the way he wanted to. In the end, it’s a story about people and dreams and freedom and music and it’s all quite well-done in a way in which, like I said, I had not really expected. But then, when you call something Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, maybe that was the whole point.
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