Rockin' the Big Screen

All Access is like an hour of the best of MTVH-1 on a giant IMAX screen, featuring the new (Macy Gray, Kid Rock, Rob Thomas, Moby), the timeless (B.B. King, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Al Green), the resurgent (Santana, Sting) and some who have proven themselves more than one-hit wonders even if they have yet to become institutions (Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews Band, Mary J. Blige). Forty years ago, you could turn on the radio and hear infinite variety on a single station: Elvis Presley, James Brown, Connie Francis, Johnny Cash, Etta James, Fats Domino, Patsy Cline and Lawrence Welk. Then we became more sophisticated, pigeonholing each act according to style and letting Rolling Stone decide what was cool.

It's 2001 and eclecticism makes a comeback with All Access. The film bypasses the boy bands, thug rappers and teen sex goddesses but offers a diverse menu of rock, rap, country, world beat, gospel, funk and Latin sounds — at least some of the more mainstream manifestations of each.

The ads are somewhat misleading, suggesting 15 acts when collaborations between artists boil it down to nine. There are combinations from hit records (Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas, Smooth; Sting and Cheb Mami, Desert Rose), from mini-tours (Al Green and Dave Matthews Band, Take Me to the River) and from one-of-a-kind teamings (Mary J. Blige with Clinton, One Nation Under a Groove; B.B. King, Trey Anastasio and The Roots, Rock Me Baby). The result is neither a rip-off nor a disappointment.

Although the film forms one big concert on the IMAX screen, the songs were recorded at several different venues, from the soundstage where Sheryl Crow gives a solo acoustic performance of If It Makes You Happy (she's in your room, in your dreams, singing just to you) to Soldier Field in Chicago, where Green and Matthews jam. Except for Sting and Cheb Mami's arena gig, the others play in relatively intimate studio concert settings.

Director Martyn Atkins varies the filming style with each act, and all of it works. Audience response is kept to a minimum, sacrificing your sense of participation for being better able to hear the music. Besides, as the title implies, you're a privileged character, onstage and backstage. You're with the bands, not out there with the rabble.

All Access may be too tame for young rowdies, with only Kid Rock thrown in to appease them; and he does only the G-rated, radio version of Bawitdaba.

As with Austin City Limits and other concert shows, All Access incorporates sound bytes from the artists. Some are merely expressions of mutual admiration, but others put the music in perspective. Crow appreciates Kid Rock's angry white rap with roots in Southern rock, while Kid himself talks of working for six years to get the right mix of hip-hop with a rock band.

Sting has something to say about everything, from the first time I met Miles Davis ... to the danger Cheb Mami faces in his native Algeria from music-hating fundamentalists. King speaks of his surprise that Phish's Trey Anastasio (who's about half my age) could play notes I can't find on my guitar, before coaxing sounds out of Lucille that Trey won't be able to play if he lives to be twice King's age. Kid Rock envisions creating a sense of community among rock 'n' rollers that exists among country and hip-hop artists.

It's tough to compare All Access with The Rolling Stones at the Max, one of the all-time great concert films. When the Stones flick came out, the giant-screen format was too new to take for granted, and the focus on one band allowed them to stretch out more than the acts in All Access. But if you're looking for variety in the area of slightly-left-of-middle-of-the-road music, with pristine sound and crystal-clear photography that lets you count Blige's pores and the colors in Clinton's hair, All Access is the perfect millennium sampler — for now and for a time capsule. At just over an hour, it's longer than most IMAX films, but you'll wish it were twice as long.

That the film is sponsored (unobtrusively, after the opening commercial) by a candy mint — or is it a breath mint? — says more than the music about the state of the biz today.

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