Among the many skills that Sean “Puff Daddy/ P. Diddy” Combs has (or has not) displayed over the years, the greatest might be a preternatural ability at self-promotion that borders on self-mythologizing. And with the aid of first-time director Daniel Kaufman the extended family and friends around Bad Boy Records, the wildly successful record company Combs founded in 1993, the documentary “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: The Bad Boy Story” — which premiered at New York’s Beacon Theatre as part of the Tribeca Film Festival Thursday — goes a long way toward sealing that myth.
While the story of Combs and the label is compelling — fatherless kid rises up from the streets and founds company that leads him to become one of the greatest black entrepreneurs in history, overcoming adversity and tragedy along the way — the fact that the filmmakers didn’t really have much to work with beyond archival and current documentary footage makes their accomplishment all the more impressive. “Can’t Stop” is essentially a post-reality-TV documentary: It’s got quick-cut pacing, dozens of talking heads, flashbacks in the form of vintage footage and visits to old neighborhoods, and most of all the snowballing drama inherent in working toward a looming, difficult goal: The Bad Boy 20th anniversary concert at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in May of 2016. (Even the “20th anniversary” is revisionist: the label was actually 23 years old.) The reality-TV element is likely just as due to Heather Parry — an MTV veteran who is now president of production for Live Nation’s film and TV division — as it is Kaufman.
The documentary alternates deftly between the history of Combs and the label — told via voiceovers, interviews and copious archival footage — and the hectic, stressful buildup toward the show, rehearsals for which took place in a giant soundstage outside Philadelphia. (The footage representing the past is usually in color; the present in a nourish black and white.) We see the cast of characters then and now: Combs’ mentors like Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell, who famously hired him as an intern and even more famously fired him as his hitmaking star was rapidly rising with Craig Mack and Mary J. Blige — “I fired him and basically made him rich,” he says — and then Clive Davis, who signed the lucrative distribution deal that allowed him to launch Bad Boy. We meet label family members — Lil Kim, Faith Evans, Mase, 112, Total, Carl Thomas — and executives like Harve Pierre and James Cruz, and most of all creative director Laurieann Gibson, who is tasked with pulling together the anniversary show. There are cameos from music stars who played pivotal roles in Bad Boy history: Blige, longtime friend and fellow up-from-the-streets mogul Jay Z, contemporary and occasional collaborator Nas. And hovering over the entire proceedings like a benevolent spirit is the artist to whom Combs essentially owes his entire career and myth, Notorious B.I.G., who was murdered in 1997 and has been memorialized by Combs multiple times over the years. (Also appearing, presumably because the doc will premiere on Apple Music, is Jimmy Iovine, who seemingly has a contract that requires him to appear in every documentary about a platinum artist made in the past five years.)
The film’s pacing lingers on Bad Boy’s mid-1990s salad days and its rapid move into excess — “It was too much success too quick,” Combs says — and then pauses on Biggie, particularly the events leading up to his death and the memorial parade through his Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (which is egregiously misspelled in a chyron of the film), as well as its lingering impact on Combs. But then the parallel tracks pick up again, and Diddy relaunches himself as a solo artist paying tribute to his friend with the No. 1 1997 hit “I’ll Be Missing You,” and the countdown clock for the 2016 reunion shows draws ever nearer.
Through it all, we see Combs the harsh taskmaster — berating a lighting crew, telling his musicians they sound like a wedding band, scolding an employee to “Fix your energy, we got work to do, for real” — as well as the sensitive and generous Puff (in vignettes accompanied by voiceovers describing his sensitivity and generosity in detail); the motivational speaker (telling his fellow performers before the concert: “Last night we were human; tonight we’re super-human!”); and, indeed, the human being, getting poked and prodded by a doctor during a checkup.
The tension peaks as the show begins, a mic fails and a distraught Combs is depicted backstage (amid voiceovers about how hard on himself he is), but then the triumphant concert ensues in ultra-slow motion — this segment is actually not accompanied by music performed at the concert. Instead, in a masterful move that prevents viewers from burning out on the Bad Boy songs they’d already heard several times in the film, the footage is accompanied by a voiceover of Combs talking about his admiration for Nina Simone, and then her “Feeling Good” plays. It provides a melancholy and poignant climax to the film that, say, “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” wouldn’t.
Thursday night’s screening — before a packed house that seemed to be celebrating its own anniversary with the film’s songs — was followed by a mercifully brief 20-minute performance by several of its stars. Seconds after the last credit rolled, two male voices were heard chanting the familiar “Bad boy” taunt (off-key) — Combs’ sons Justin and Christian came onstage and were quickly introduced by Gibson, then Lil’ Kim raced through a three-song medley climaxing with Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Get Money.” She and former rival Faith Evans high-fived as they switched places and Evans delivered a three-song medley, followed by about 60 seconds of Carl Thomas. Then Combs and Mase took the stage to “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” and tore through two more quick songs (one of them ended so abruptly Mase kept rapping for several seconds), then were joined by dancers for “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems”; for Biggie’s verse the music dropped out and the performers all pointed skyward.
The entire cast came onstage for a long and seemingly off-the-cuff thank-you speech from Combs, which petered out after he’d gotten to his mother and New York City. “This is truly a humbling experience,” he said, perhaps a little ingenuously after nearly three hours of homage. “To all the dreamers out there: you gotta keep fighting and fighting and fighting and fighting.” And with that, he left the stage.