When the Tribeca Film Festival opened last week with the Clive Davis documentary The Soundtrack of Our Lives and a mini-concert featuring the likes of Barry Manilow, Carly Simon, Dionne Warwick, and Aretha Franklin, it was a giddy good time – but mostly, y’know, for audience members Of A Certain Age. (Not judging.) Last night, the festival held another gala of a similar style – a documentary about a music industry power player, followed by brief but rousing performances by his signature acts. But this one was aimed at a demo a generation or two younger, focusing as it did on Sean “Puffy” Combs, and his label Bad Boy.
Director Daniel Kaufman structures Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story around a single, very big event: the launch of the 2016 Bad Boy reunion tour, which kicked off with two shows last May at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. We see him rallying his troops and hyping up the shows on the radio – and then we cut to Puffy at the doctor, getting his shoulder looked at (“Is it my posture or do I just have bad luck?”), a stark reminder that he, and many of those he’s performing with, are getting old. He has, after all, been doing this for more than 20 years.
And from there we spin into the biography, the mogul tracing his drive for success back to sitting on his stoop, looking jealously at the neighbors’ pool, and realizing he wanted one too. Via interviews, four-star home movies, and archival clips, Kaufman moves quickly through his career –too quickly, frankly, leaving us wanting more details. But there’s great stuff about how they built a scene, and a sound, at Uptown and Bad Boy, but how Combs’s temperament made him a bad fit in a big record company’s corporate culture (or as mentor Andre Harrell puts it, “Puff got fired from Uptown because Puff’s crazy”). And then, whaddaya know, there’s Clive Davis again, giving Bad Boy its initial push, a strange case of intersecting narratives between two film festival galas.
Even stranger, Davis also pops up in Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me, but that stark and intimate portrait of addiction and heartbreak isn’t exactly gala-and-a-concert material. Both the Davis and the Combs movies come branded with the Apple Music imprimatur; this one is also the product of LiveNation’s film production arm. So yes, with those kinds of big brands attached – not to mention a producer credit for its subject – it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Can’t Stop Won’t Stop has more than a whiff of hagiography to it. (For example, I would dare anyone who sees it without previous knowledge of his sensational, two-plus month 2001 weapons trial to tell me one thing about it based on its fleeing mention here.)
But taken for what it is, Can’t Stop is engaging – and beautifully done, with Kaufman capturing the backstage and rehearsal footage in crisp, stark black-and-white, then switching to rich color for the performance (a la U2: Rattle and Hum). The soundtrack is a shrewd mix of Bad Boy hits and the classic soul that inspired them, and the construction is cunning, counting down to the big show only to resist the urge to do a straight concert climax, instead using Nina Simone’s recording of “Feelin’ Good” to accompany a series of gorgeous, stylized, way-slowed-down performance images. The sequence is a stunner; this is one of the best looking docs I’ve seen at Tribeca this year.
As with the opening night, time restrictions meant the post-movie performances were brief, but there was time enough for Lil’ Kim and Faith Evans (whose beef-squashing is one of the documentary’s emotional highlights) to perform medleys of their hits, for Carl Thomas to do “I Wish,” and then for the main attraction: Puffy and Mase running through several Bad Boy standbys, with assists from the rest of the family. And when it was all over, Puffy took center stage, and thanked everyone who helped him make his dream come true, and thanked New York, and thanked all of us. And sure, it was all pre-fabbed event and pure salesmanship, but it’s hard not to root for the guy, especially after watching even a sanitized version of his story, with its rises and falls and tragedies and triumphs. His is a dramatic story. Just like a movie.
“Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story” screens this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival. It premieres on Apple Music on June 25. Video of the post-film concert is available on Puffy’s Facebook page. Photo credits: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire.