Backstage pass

by Randy Matin

How wide is Sting's neck? How red are Mary J. Blige's lips? And why can't Moby move his jaw? These and other pressing questions concerning rock's top-flight celebrities are answered, and amplified to concert volume and blown up to 60 x 80 feet in a new concert film from the IMAX Corporation and Ideal Entertainment: All Access: Front Row. Backstage. Live!

The Shapiro Brothers, Peter (who owns the non-profit Wetlands Preserve concert club in Manhattan) and Jon co-produced the film and share a music director's credit. They began filming the night after the Grammy Awards last year when Carlos Santana walked off with an armload of trophies, capturing a performance by Santana with Matchbox 20's singer Rob Thomas.

Their performance of the mega-hit "Smooth" comes late in this 64-minute feature, but even then the cameras don't lie. The star is Santana with his sweet, sweet tone; Thomas, who mostly talk-sings with annoying rap swagger, could easily be replaced by, say Ricky Martin.

Other couplings succeed, such as matching Mary J. Blige with George Clinton's mothership, while still others seem awkward such as the pairing of Sting with the obscure, Middle Eastern wedding singer Cheb Mami doing "Desert Rose." The song worked well enough on record, but the sheer size of Sting's onstage personality (especially with his neck made colossal on the IMAX screen) leaves Mami looking a desperate and lucky odd man out.

In a telephone interview, Jon Shapiro (whose credits include the children's feature Richie Rich and the upcoming Curious George) feels that this kind of multi-generational, multi-cultural exchange is the heart of the film.

"We wanted to give people something exclusive that they could only see in this film," he says. "Sure you can go see B.B. King when he comes to your town, but if you want to see him with Trey Anastasio [lead singer of Phish] and the hip-hop band the Roots, you have to see our film."

Of course there are lots of other things one wouldn't normally see when going to a concert by any of the artists in this film. Some of these are teasers, such as Moby getting out of bed fully clothed, and Sting, still awestruck at the boundlessness of America, discoursing in his dressing room.

"You get to meet the artists backstage. You get to see what goes on at a rock concert literally from an empty room to its full glory and back again. And we take you into sound check, rehearsals and all through the day in the life of the artists combined with their thrilling songs," Shapiro says.

In what may be the first large-format concert film since the legendary 90-minute Rolling Stones At The Max, All Access also gives exposure to some newer acts, particularly the raw intensity of Macy Gray, who is absolutely on fire in her performance. It's the sort of thing that can only happen in a live setting. The muse takes over, and Gray ramps up to another level of reality.

Many other artists are shown off to good effect thanks to the gorgeous footage shot by director of photography Reed Smoot, one of large format's most respected craftsmen. Not only are the images rich in color, but there is a deep saturation that one can almost smell. In a solo of "If It Makes You Happy," Sheryl Crow benefits from Smoot's cinematography in a performance that could ignite some of the same type of goddess idolatry that fell upon Joni Mitchell during her Blue period.

All this would not have been possible without the participation of Certs as a major sponsor. Just as the Shapiros faced "having to scrap the project for lack of traditional funding sources," says Shapiro, the breath mint giant stepped in to help fund the project.

While the film was first targeted to 20-somethings, due to the performances by Moby and Kid Rock, Shapiro says the focus evolved to just choosing good music without targeting a specific demographic. "We find that people are going adoring a portion of the artists, and they leave with a newfound respect for all of them. I think that is because when you go to an IMAX movie, you become the director. You can look around and choose what you are looking at. It gives you the opportunity to be in control. And that is what keeps people coming back."

All Access plays at the IMAX Experience in Riverfront Park through May 28. It shows at 7 pm every night, with 8:30 pm showings on Friday and Saturday nights. Tickets: $8. Call: 625-6686.