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‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga’ joins wave of authorized musical bios

Written by on September 4, 2019

Musical biographies have moved into an interesting if not necessarily helpful phase, one where the stories are either being told by or presented with the approval and participation of the artists themselves.

Enter “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” a 10-part Hulu miniseries about the seminal hip-hip group the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s produced and co-written (along with Alex Tse) by the group’s The RZA, inspired by the books “The Wu-Tang Manual” and “The Tao of Wu.”
Frequently entertaining, 10 parts is still an awful lot to ask of an audience on this kind of dive into musical history, which chronicles Wu-Tang’s rise during the early 1990s, amid all the dangers and excesses associated with the crack cocaine epidemic.
“Wu-Tang: An American Saga” is a dense look at how it all came together, with a strong cast that includes Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) as Bobby Diggs, a.k.a. RZA. Even so, with that much time to fill, the pacing doesn’t exhibit much sense of urgency.
Still, “An American Saga” is really just a more expansive rendition of a formula that has been much in evidence over the last few years — following “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the box-office mega-hit produced with the blessing of surviving Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor; and “Rocketman,” a more ambitious musical chronicle of Elton John’s life, which the singer produced and helped promote.
Television has also gotten into the act, including BET’s “The Bobby Brown Story,” a four-hour miniseries that aired last year based on the singer’s autobiography, offering a not surprisingly sympathetic window into his life.
The lure of big musical names also spun out “Vinyl,” a short-lived 2016 HBO series — built around a record label in the 1970s — that counted Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese among its producers. The show cost a small fortune to produce — in part because of the extensive music rights — but yielded disappointing results, both creatively and commercially.
Nevertheless, thanks to “Bohemian’s” success the hits, as they say, will keep coming, although not necessarily in the form of what amount to licensed products. Recently announced projects include director Baz Luhrmann’s announced biography of Elvis Presley (already immortalized in multiple projects), this time starring Austin Butler as the young singer and Tom Hanks as his imperious manager, Col. Tom Parker.
Beyond nostalgia, there’s plenty of glamor and drama associated with the rock-star lifestyle, whether fictional (see “A Star is Born”) or based on fact.
At the same time, there’s a nagging sense that the cooperation and/or sanction of those portrayed tends to soften the rough edges, or at the very least, exalt their status within the musical world to even more extraordinary heights.
It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, to have these histories written by the people who lived them, in terms of offering an inside, up-close-and-personal glimpse behind the velvet ropes.
Yet the inherent challenge in that — underscored by the way that “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” slowly unfolds — is when projects come from those who lived the material it’s apparently hard, among other things, to decide not only on what to cut, but when.


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