You have to wait until the end of the final episode of Showtime’s four-part miniseries Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men (premiering May 10) to hear the famed rappers discuss Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the much-hyped 2015 double album of which there is only one worldwide copy, and which was sold at auction for $2 million to smirking pharma felon Martin Shkreli. Made in secret over the course of six years, heard by few, and the subject of speculation about whether it’s a real Wu-Tang album at all—since it was produced by RZA and new apprentice Cilvaringz—the record is an art-stunt gimmick of considerable fascination. And in the presence of his comrades, Method Man doesn’t hold back.
“Once Upon a Time on these nuts,” Meth jokes, with barely a trace of humor in his voice. “Speaking for myself, I don’t give a fuck about that fucking album.”
He continues, “The issue is, when you’re a group, and certain things happen to individuals in the group, it reflects on the whole group. So this album, it does make us look like a circus act. And I don’t want no part of that.”
With RZA sitting beside him, Inspectah Deck backs Meth up. “Ever since that shit came to the table, it’s been like a fucking circus. So I agree with that,” he states, as U-God nods in somber agreement.
It’s certainly the tensest moment in Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, although the lack of a genuine back-and-forth about Once Upon a Time in Shaolin—or even a response from RZA, who weathers these criticisms without making a single retort—is a considerable disappointment, especially given how outspoken, and feisty, the Wu-Tang Clan otherwise is in director Sacha Jenkins’ series. Presumably, RZA doesn’t feel the need to get into it because, as he’s earlier professed, the album helped re-energize the Wu-Tang brand, netting it publicity from corners of the media world that would have normally ignored it. But his silence, like that of many Wu-Tang stars (only Ghostface Killah similarly chimes in with semi-negative comments about how it’s a stitched-together-in-the-studio effort) nonetheless comes off like a deflating climax for a show about the rise, fall, and resilient continuation of NYC’s legendary hip-hop outfit.
Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men has access to spare, complementing its treasure trove of throwback material with new interviews with every living group member (RZA, GZA, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon The Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, Masta Killa and Method Man) as well as with business associates John “Mook” Gibbons, Michael “Lask” McDonald, Oliver “Power” Grant and RZA’s brother Mitchell “Divine” Diggs. There’s plentiful never-before-seen clips of the Clan as up-and-coming MCs in Park Hill, Staten Island, their initial concerts and promo tours, and their joyous heyday and subsequent splintering due to personal and economic disagreements. All of this footage is spliced together with a deftness that’s invigorating; from a purely archival standpoint, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men is close to definitive.
For die-hard fans and casual admirers alike, that alone will make this celebratory non-fiction effort more than worthwhile. Home movies of the group spitting rhymes at each other in RZA’s apartment on the eve of their maiden record deal, or hanging out together on Park Hill streets and at block parties, convey a sense of both their unique charisma and the complementary nature of their personalities and musical skills. More than once, members speak about how they’re strong on their own but mightier together, and Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men bears that out by underlining what a close-knit family the group was, having grown up together in the projects, where they came to recognize—courtesy of mastermind RZA—that their multi-voiced unity was a unique source of power.
For its first three episodes, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men moves more or less chronologically through the group’s history. It details their intertwined backstories (many are cousins), the origins of their martial arts-inspired style, attitude and ethos (including an amusing argument over who came up with their name, taken from the 1983 film Shaolin and Wu Tang), and their alternately pioneering and self-sabotaging decision to sign a record deal that allowed members to shop solo projects to other labels. RZA believed that plan was the only fair way to treat his brothers (whom he didn’t want to keep in bondage), but as Jenkins illustrates, it eventually allowed individual ambitions to overshadow those of the Clan.
Following their groundbreaking 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), a string of acclaimed solo albums, and their multi-platinum 1997 follow-up Wu-Tang Forever, things got increasingly contentious over money, and Jenkins addresses those divisive issues thoroughly, thanks in part to Divine, whose on-camera presence (after 25 years of public silence) provides a welcome both-sides-of-the-coin perspective. At the same time, the director pays tribute to the distinctive and dynamic personas that made Wu-Tang Clan such a phenomenon, including the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard (real name: Russell Jones), the wild man who, after years of legal troubles and time in prison, died of a drug overdose in the recording studio on November 13, 2004, at the age of 35. His post-incarceration ordeal fighting for independence from Wu-Tang Productions—which RZA didn’t want to grant him, even though everyone else had been afforded an opportunity to break free—is arguably the series’ rawest passage, replete with video of RZA writing lyrics for a not-really-having-it ODB in 2004, after the latter had signed to Roc-A-Fella Records.
Bolstered by commentary from the rappers themselves as they sit together in a movie theater, watching old clips and reminiscing about days gone by, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men captures its subjects’ gritty spirit and musical dexterity. It’s too bad, then, that in its fourth episode, the series loses its way, leaping between the past and the present, and various biographical threads, with a frustrating lack of purpose. Having recounted their ascension, self-destruction and reunion, Jenkins seems unsure about how to wrap things up, and what his story ultimately has to say about hip-hop success and solidarity, other than the obvious. That invariably results in a somewhat ho-hum closing note, yet it’s not enough to undercut the comprehensiveness of his documentary, whose nostalgic affection is as potent as the music crafted by the indispensable, and indefatigable, Clan.