The Bad Boy Documentary Isn’t a Puff Piece (Although It Is a Puff Daddy Piece)
We talked to director Daniel Kaufman about the film that chronicles the rise of the Bad Boy empire.
Can't Stop, Won't Stop is a new Live Nation-produced film about the genesis and legacy of famed hip-hop boutique label Bad Boy that follows Sean "Diddy" Combs a.k.a. Puff Daddy as he and former Bad Boy artists prepared for this past summer's two-week label reunion tour. At the film's premiere at last week's TriBeCa Film Festival, a crowd packed tightly into New York's Beacon Theater, getting a first look at golden footage from the label's early stages when a young Diddy's fervor made it seem possible that young black people could turn their passions into millions. One of the film's treats is that it shows Diddy reuniting with some of the label's most iconic artists in real time, lovingly embracing the likes of Ma$e, Lil Kim, Carl Thomas, Faith Evans, and more, people who haven't seemed to spent much time together in recet memory. Artists like Jay Z were interviewed for the film, confessing that without Combs' maniacal drive, he and other would-be moguls may have not had the imagination and confidence to attempt duplicating the Bad Boy model.
Can't Stop, Won't Stop is directed by Daniel Kaufman, who, before this project, had no feature-length film experience. He started working on documentaries as a kid with his father, who made human rights films, moving their family between the U.S. and Haiti while shooting. But thanks to a well-connected mentor, he ended up in a meeting about making a Bad Boy concert film and was on the job the next day. While Can't Stop, Won't Stop is very much focused on the urgency of nailing each date of the Bad Boy reunion tour in honor of The Notorious B.I.G.'s legacy, it does a superb job of weaving in and out of each of the label's phases: Diddy's beginnings as a party promoter, earning Biggie's trust to help mold him into one of the genre's biggest superstars ever, rerouting after Big's death, and continuously churning out hits for close to 30 years. To cap off the premiere, Diddy, Ma$e, Kim, Carl Thomas, and Faith Evans came out to perform their hits, seemingly missing no steps. On the day following the premiere, Kaufman stopped by VICE headquarters to discuss the responsibility of telling one of hip-hop's greatest stories ever.
Noisey: Everybody knows that Diddy is a super willful person that can either motivate or intimidate people, depending on how they take it. What was that like for you as a director? From the outside, it seemed like he had a lot of say in how the film turned out.
Daniel Kaufman: I felt like I was one of the artists on his label. I had my voice and I had my goals but I was definitely being produced by him. I'd talked to some people about what's the validity of a movie where the person who it's about has a producer credit. How can you expect authenticity from that? He had a say but I was amazed at the level of freedom he gave me in terms of being able to tell his story. He chose me to do it but within that, he said that he wanted it to feel like a celebration. He wanted it to be about Bad Boy coming back together. It was genuinely that. It was about exercising a lot of demons.
How did he end up choosing you?
The director Mark Romanek has been a mentor to me and he ran into the producer of the movie at a party and she asked who was a young version of him to direct the movie. He referred me and they reached out to me. They said they wanted to make a concert film and I said I didn't want to do that but I would like to use the concert as a narrative device to tell the story of Diddy's career. I wrote a treatment and went into a meeting with Puff and the first thing he said was, "I feel like we've met before." That was either a tool of ingratiating me or it was sincere, but regardless he liked me enough. The next day we were filming. When we started he asked me what was my goal and I told him, "You're a complicated guy. Everyone knows you're a complicated guy. It doesn't serve you to portray yourself as anything other than that."
That's funny because within the first five minutes of the film I was a little afraid that it was one of those documentaries where everyone interviewed says the best shit about the subject. But as time progressed, you all started to shed the layers of who Diddy really is. Like when his choreographer, Laurieann Gibson, said that performing makes him his most vulnerable and honest. And that was crazy to see him kind of unravel when the first show of the reunion tour didn't go his way. He's resting his forehead on the wall out of disappointment while everyone else seemed pleased.
It's funny because being in the theater last night, people were laughing because he's a funny person. I didn't expect people to laugh that much. There's a lot to him and the thing I appreciated is that he let us cut him down to size. In some ways, by doing that, you make him bigger. In terms of the layers, the big movie that I showed the editors before we started cutting was this movie called Let's Get Lost. Have you seen that?
It's fucking amazing. It's my favorite documentary. It's by a fashion photographer and it's about Chet Baker, the famous jazz trumpeter. It's stylistically similar to this film in the way it uses black and white and archival footage. One of the things I found most interesting is that it starts by selling you on how sexy Chet is and how slick his sound is; all the things that are in the myth. About 30 minutes in, you start to realize that he's the exact opposite of that and I wanted to try and employ that device where you sell people on what the slickness of Bad Boy is but you start to show people on a human level.
What was it like revisiting old footage? A lot of what's in this movie is common knowledge within hip-hop culture but it just hasn't been presented together in this way. What was something you saw that you knew would fit perfectly into the narrative you were crafting?
There was a lot of stuff like that. My interest was much more on the present day stuff because like you said, a lot of people know the story. So, I had to think about what do I give them. So I decided to give them the emotional experience. They know the facts. That said, the movie evolved once we got archival stuff rolling in. What it gives to the movie is the character of Biggie. The goal from the treatment phase was that I wanted the movie to feel haunted by the ghost of Biggie.
It started to feel really heavy about five minutes before the funeral scene. The Biggie story has always been sad but within the context of this story, it felt so tragic. Seeing these artists now and realizing that they wouldn't be who they are without him hit hard. Do you feel anything different about his role in Bad Boy after finishing the film?
The reason the story is so compelling is because—maybe it's because it's been told 1,000 times—it feels very Shakespearean and biblical. He was a Christ figure for 90s hip-hop and enabled the genre to radically shift. Right after he died, the genre stopped being as street. It was an awakening. Also the fact that he died helped change gears for Puff and enabled the label to go to the next iconic level.
Another scene that really stuck out was the small window of time where you could feel the tension between Faith Evans and Lil Kim. Especially the conversation between Puff and Kim where he mentioned that everyone makes "mistakes." Once he said that word, you could feel that he said the wrong thing. The theater went a little quiet. How did it feel being in the middle of all that?
I didn't want it to feel like a tabloid.
It felt natural. Not like anyone pried for that to happen.
For me, watching that, my instinct was that I had to be as delicate as possible because Kim is incredibly talented and has gotten maligned for a bunch of reasons. When you're talking about affairs or matters of the heart, it's just so easy to exploit and twist it. At the baseline, seeing that their intentions were probably never bad and that they are all flawed, and that it's okay to be that way, that was most important.
There were some great visual moments too. Towards the end of the film when Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" was playing as the artists performed in slow motion, with the tails of their mink coats floating in the sky. It was a great way to cap off so many intense emotional exchanges. Especially since Diddy referenced her famous interview about achieving freedom through the absence of fear.
I thought it was so appropriate that the most emotional part of the movie is something that he's basically sampling. It's no less sincere.
Yeah. It showed that this is how he navigates through emotions.
That's the construction of hip-hop; taking something, remixing it, and making it bigger. He told me that when he first heard that quote from Nina Simone, he started crying. I believe it because music means more to him than anything else in his life. He once said that a lot of people may not care as much as him about the task at hand, but he cares because we only have one chance to do it. He's very mission-oriented. He's trying to chase that feeling of freedom and creative ecstasy. Him and other people on the label had a lot to overcome and there's a lot of trauma I'm sure they're still dealing with. I think the perfect way to exercise that trauma is that freedom on stage.
What was his reaction to the first rough cut of the film?
He was very receptive. Half of the job of being a director is selling someone on your approach. It was a big risk for him to trust me. This is my first feature. I think he was really happy but the riskiest thing was the ending. His first instinct was that you have to hear the Bad Boy music to end things. The first cut had the Nina Simone ending but we had to do a completely new recut that didn't have her. He didn't think it would work. But if he realizes the opposite isn't as good as what you first showed him, he'll go back to what's good.
Can't Stop, Won't Stop comes to Apple Music in June.
Photo: Courtesy of Live Nation.
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- Puff Daddy
- Lil' Kim
- Biggie Smalls
- Tribeca Film Festival
- Bad Boy
- Can't Stop Won't Stop