Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan is a 79-minute authorized documentary, now available on DVD. This is a well put together film that chronicles the story of the Wu-Tang Clan from their humble Staten Island beginnings to their eventual domination of the hip-hop world. Of course, in a film dealing with this many personalities and a history spanning the early '90s to present, a relatively brief running time can't possibly cover all aspects of its subject in an entirely effective manner.
What we have here, in essence, is a lengthy Behind the Music style program. I don't necessarily mean that as a slight – it's a formula that works. Wu-Tang Clan's formative years are covered in the opening segments. Interviews with the members themselves, as well as their personal and professional contacts, are interspersed throughout. The film works best as it deals with the path to stardom taken by the group. While attempting to introduce their multi-MC concept and distinctive slang terminology, the group was met with considerable confusion from some record-industry professionals. But they were already an underground sensation that eventually couldn't be denied, based on their independently released first single, "Protect Ya Neck."
Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Wu-Tang Clan is aware that all of their members have released solo albums. In Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan, there is only the briefest mention of the existence of this large and varied body of work. In many cases, enough other members turn up for guest appearances on each other's albums that some can be regarded as de facto Wu-Tang albums. Several of these albums have been extremely commercially successful, not to mention widely influential. Maybe it was a diplomatic decision to avoid delving into the history of the solo releases. It would probably take an entire series of documentaries to comprehensively cover the labyrinth of work that they've produced over the last fifteen years. But it must be said that it feels like a very odd gap in the chronology when the narrator jumps from the 1993 release of Enter the 36 Chambers to the release of 1997's Wu-Tang Forever.
At some point when making a documentary like this, a basic question must be answered: is this project targeting hardcore fans or is it targeting the largest general audience possible? In the case of Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan, the latter demographic seems to have been the intention. A viewer with virtually zero knowledge of Wu-Tang will likely come away from this show with a fair grasp of the group's impact. However, being an authorized production is a double-edged sword. On one hand, we are treated to participation from the actual group members as well as the inclusion of their music. With the many unauthorized documentaries available, usually you get neither. But in the end, an authorized documentary tells only the parts of the story that the group wants us to hear. It is the "official" story, even if that conveniently leaves out relevant information. As a hip-hop dilettante, I was interested in learning more about what really went on behind the scenes within Wu-Tang. So when the narrator, Gerald Barclay (also the film's director), refers to "disagreements" amongst the members, I don't know exactly what he's talking about. The documentary skips over much of the conflict that could have made the film more compelling.
Following the discussion of Wu-Tang at their commercial peak, the last half hour or so of the documentary focuses almost exclusively on Ol' Dirty Bastard. The shift away from the group as a whole is a bit jarring. Still, the tragic fate of ODB offers a weightier emotional context for the film's final act. The late rapper's legal and drug problems are dealt with, including his time as a fugitive and eventual incarceration. Director Barclay, who was a personal friend of the group, captures some very moving tributes to ODB as the film deals with his last days before passing away at age 35.
When all is said and done, Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan lacks the storytelling clarity and focus necessary to make a great documentary. It's a good introduction, but the group's hardcore fanbase will likely know more about their history than the film delivers. The DVD contains over 30 minutes of additional interview footage, adding considerable value given the main program's relative brevity.