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The first two hours of Sacha Jenkins’ four-hour Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, focusing largely on the hip-hop titans’ early days rising up from the streets of Staten Island and Brooklyn, premiered on Monday (Jan. 28) night in front of a house packed with parka-wearing, largely (though not exclusively by any means) white fans who really should show more discretion regarding which Wu-Tang lyrics they chose to shout at full volume.
Since that’s basically the history of Wu-Tang Clan and the history of hip-hop in a snapshot, it was a perfect venue to launch a limited series that will come to Showtime in May.
As for the first two Of Mics and Men episodes, they’re pretty super. Journalist-turned-documentarian Jenkins and his collaborators have uncovered a treasure trove of nascent Wu-Tang Clan footage — whether previously unseen or merely pulled from the depths of MTV’s vaults — and added a healthy dose of context, plus fantastic and reflective interviews with members of the group, who couldn’t possibly have ever believed they’d still be doing this 25 years after the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Even when Of Mics and Men feels like it’s engaging in somewhat familiar self-mythologizing, you never forget that Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and the whole group are, first and foremost, exceptional storytellers.
The documentary’s framing device finds the primary Wu members assembling at Staten Island’s St. George Theatre to watch old footage of themselves and shoot the shit. While some of the members — Method Man and RZA, in particular — look like they haven’t aged a day, there’s an inherent and magical gravity that comes from a maturing Cappadonna or U-God reflecting on the young turks they used to be, or the way the room goes immediately introspective whenever footage of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard appears. If Of Mics and Men had exclusively been these scenes at the St. George — an intense fight between RZA and Ghostface about the origins of the Wu-Tan Clan name, with Method Man giggling like a maniac behind them is a highlight — that probably would have been sufficient.
I also could happy have watched hours of the Wu-Tang Clan members visiting their old neighborhood haunts, whether standing on a rooftop in Park Hill with the Verrazano Bridge in the background or Method Man and U-God visiting the restaurant near the Statue of Liberty where they used to work. I’m a sucker for stories of how all of their lives intersected pre-Wu, and if Sacha Jenkins and Showtime aren’t already in development on a Muppet Babies-style drama about all of these guys — even just cousins RZA, GZA and ODB — circa 1990 or 1991, this is a horrible missed opportunity.
The first episode has a lot of “birth of hip-hop” history that I feel like Jenkins has done in similar forms a half dozen times — Of Mics and Men is, at its heart, the longest, best episode possible of Jenkins’ Netflix series Rapture, which has to annoy Netflix — but there’s much more essential context that the guys provide for the racial and economic climate in the Staten Island of their youth. It’s fun to hear how even when they aren’t spitting rhymes, each of their individual styles still filter into this kind of recounted, spoken nostalgia, be it Method Man’s humor, Ghostface’s colorful emotionalism or GZA’s quirky intellectualism.
I might have enjoyed the second episode even more than the first, because it’s focused on the nuts and bolts of Enter the Wu-Tang, both in the studio and the behind-the-scenes development of the Wu-Tang brand (the process-driven Rapture episodes were my favorite in that series as well). RZA is the clear hero here, getting some love for his production aptitude and even more for the business acumen in plotting out the group’s long-term strategy. It’s eye-opening to see certain key tracks develop vocally and to see how the respect that they all had for each other back in the day remains today when they talk about whose work intimidated them, whose verses caused them to elevate their own, etc. If you don’t know the Wu or you’re only a casual fan, you’ll come away with some appreciation for what makes them distinctive as a group and as solo performers.
These episodes also include Wu associates like John “Mook” Gibbons, whose story of getting record store space for the “Protect Ya Neck” single is a delight, Oliver “Power” Grant and ODB’s wife, Icelene Jones, in a segment that would probably be more touching if you don’t remember their various unpleasant legal issues. Jones and each of the Wu-Tang members are credited producers on Of Mics and Men, which plays into the feeling of self-mythologizing. I think it’s possible to accept that ODB was a genius of a mad sort without whitewashing his personal life, and I hope later episodes don’t do that.
At least thus far, Jenkins has exhibited admirable restraint when it comes to using celebrity Wu fans as talking heads. Probably a Ta-Nehisi Coates cameo was inevitable and mandatory. Jim Jarmusch makes a brief, coffee-drinking appearance to call the group “warriors of the imagination” and Seth Rogen doesn’t overstay his welcome, smartly pointing out the sadness that fuels “C.R.E.A.M.”
The first two episodes may cover the Wu-Tang Clan at their birth and perhaps at their collective peak, but there’s still a lot of good stuff to get to in the second half of the series. There’s mainstream crossing over, group dysfunction, some tragedy and if I don’t get an entire episode dedicated to Method Man’s acting career, particularly Method & Red, I’m going to be very disappointed. I’ll be looking forward to more Of Mics and Men.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Indie Episodic)
Production company: Mass Appeal
Producers: Robert Diggs, Clifford Smith, Gary Grice, Lamont Hawkins, Corey Woods, Darryl Hill, Elgin Turner, Dennis Coles, Jason Hunter, Icelene Jones, Cary Graber
Archival producers: Amilca Palmer, Vanessa Maruskin
Director: Sacha Jenkins
Executive producers: Peter J. Scalettar, Peter Bittenbender, Chris Gary
Lead editor: Paul Greenhouse
Editors: James Lester, Sean Frechette
Premieres on Showtime in May.
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