There are a hundred factors that could undo a Bad Boy reunion tour — and, likewise, myriad circumstances that could upend a feature-length documentary film about said tour.
But there were Puffy, Mase, Lil Kim, Faith Evans, and Carl Thomas, performing together Thursday night at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan. The Bad Boy CEO and some of his protégés appeared on a small stage following the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story — a concert documentary about the 2016 reunion tour, set to premiere exclusively on Apple Music on June 25, that briefly fancies itself as being a broader historical overview of Bad Boy Records. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop is the first feature from director Daniel Kaufman, who otherwise specializes in commercials and music videos. Given his background, it makes sense that his film’s highlight is its finale, where Kaufman turns last year’s Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour footage into a highly stylized, and highly cathartic, music video. Indeed, Thursday’s post-premiere, live-performance screening felt quaint in light of the arena pyrotechnics and fancy camerawork that had unfolded on the big screen moments before.
The Bad Boy Family Reunion tour was always a rocky proposition. For one, the Notorious B.I.G. is no longer with us, and his absence will always weigh more than the sum presence of all the other living Bad Boy hitmakers. Plus, there’s the fact that so many of the Bad Boy rappers who remain have occasionally fallen out with the label and its head honcho, Puffy, for a variety of reasons: Craig Mack, Mase, and Loon due to drastic religious conversions, and the Lox due to financial and creative disagreements. And Bad Boy’s banner R&B acts — Total, 112, Faith Evans, Carl Thomas — haven’t been popular for a decade or longer.
Ultimately, the artists pull themselves together for the tour; it’s the documentary that doesn’t do them justice. Kaufman devotes little to no effort explaining who is who, how they entered the picture, and how they blew up. There’s a two-minute scene where a producer calls Craig Mack, now a pastor who has disavowed his rap career, and begs him to join the reunion tour, but at no point is it established who, exactly, Craig Mack is. Bad Boy is a 24-year-old boutique record label that succeeded in many different phases; Puffy, Faith Evans, Lil Kim, Mase, 112, Carl Thomas, the Lox, and the late Notorious B.I.G. all appear in the film, and yet later hitmakers such as Black Rob, Loon, and the currently incarcerated G. Dep are totally absent from the tour, from the footage, and from Puffy’s concern. Indeed, the film is so specifically committed to celebrating Bad Boy’s peak that, if you went in knowing nothing about the label, you’d be forgiven for watching Kaufman’s documentary and thinking that Bad Boy Records died after "Feel So Good." (Arguably, it did.)
The fullest history here is Biggie’s, whose life was the shortest, and whose personal story is the most carefully told, from his signing with Uptown Records in 1993 to his murder in March 1997. The backstories of pretty much everyone else who get significant screen time in the doc — Mary J Blige, Lil Kim, Mase, et al. — are afterthoughts. Save for Puffy’s story, of course. For all the screen time that he manages to hog to himself, however, there’s no real reckoning with Puffy’s darker moments in the limelight. Even his biggest scandal, the 1999 shooting at Club New York that got Shyne sent away for nearly nine years, is all but entirely omitted, mentioned only briefly in a whirlwind newsreel montage. You’d think Puffy would revisit these trials if only to credit God, as he always does, for allowing him to emerge unscathed. But Puffy coproduced this thing, and his selective memory shows.
As a record-label history lesson, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop is incomplete. As a concert doc, it’s a rough ride for the viewer as Kaufman is racing through concert prep that is, itself, a rush job, by the admission of all the producers and performers involved. The film follows the Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour cramming "two month’s worth" of rehearsals, per Puffy’s estimate, into a two-week school at remote practice arenas in the midwest. Puffy demands this hyperefficiency in classic Puffy form: by berating his assistants in an exceedingly quotable manner. (In the first week of rehearsals, he berates a drummer for playing "Victory" in the style of a wedding band.)
From the start of rehearsals, Puffy speaks obsessively about an old, famous interview bit where Nina Simone defines freedom as "no fear," a rare feeling that she cherished on stage. Puffy runs around the rehearsal set showing all the performers this clip on his laptop as a matter of inspiration. After a rocky Barclays Center debut beset with technical malfunctions, the film culminates with a second Barclays show on what would have been the Notorious B.I.G.’s 44th birthday — May 21, 2016. But when the performance begins, Kaufman replaces the stage audio with a studio recording of Simone singing "Feeling Good," and he grinds the footage into a Zack Snyder–style slow-mo that presents Puffy, Mase, and Jadakiss as hip-hop’s great, flabby barbarians. Their sweat and tears are glorious.
While Kaufman is largely concerned with chronicling the Bad Boy Family Reunion as such, he and Puffy also invite Bad Boy’s biggest celebrity cousins such as Jay Z, Nas, DMX, Rick Ross, and French Montana on stage to broaden and further bolster Puffy’s clout. Jay speaks on his and Biggie’s escape from the projects, and Nas talks about Puffy’s ubiquity throughout New York’s party scenes.
In his own interview bits — and trust, there’s a lot of them — Puffy constantly bills Bad Boy Records as a family of superheroes. At the birthday show at Barclays, Puffy — rocking a fiery three-piece suit with a heavy gold medallion — does look the part. So does everyone else, despite Mase and Total’s Keisha Spivey Epps’s initial reservations about returning to the stage. When Mase first arrives at Puffy’s L.A. private estate in Holmby Hills, he’s self-conscious about his weight. Mase — who is eight years younger than his old boss — notes that he’s not as slim and fit as Puffy is these days. Cheerfully, Puffy takes Mase aside and tells him he’s fine just the way he is. Mase can rap, and Mase can dance, and Mase found God; that’s all that matters. Puffy knows they’re both creaky old men at this point. Every day, his left shoulder aches, and his doctor tells him to give it a rest, but Puffy can’t — well, you know the rest.