Welcome to death row


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Welcome to Death Row tells the unauthorised history of the most notorious rap label ever. And what a story it is, with enough blood and betrayal to satiate the Borgias and machinations that would make Machiavelli proud. The rise and fall of Death Row and its power-hungry CEO, Marion “Suge” Knight, makes The Godfather look like a bedtime story. The film centres on the testimony of Michael Harris–also known as “Harry O”, as in octopus, because he had his business fingers in so many pies–who provided Suge Knight with the seed money to set up Death Row, and assigned his lawyer David Kenner to oversee the label’s business affairs. The film traces the entire controversial history of the label, which at its height was turning over $500 million a year, and the impact it had on not only the music industry but American culture. “It was like working in a prison”, says Doug Young, the label’s record promoter, of Suge Knight’s predilection for hiring gangsters and ex-felons. The film also details the relationship between Death Row and its biggest star, Tupac Shakur, and the effect that Shakur’s sudden death in a Las Vegas drive-by shooting had on the label’s fortunes (a story told in greater depth in Savidge’s film Thug Immortal).Although none of the major players in this drama are represented on tape–Dr Dre and Interscope Records heads Jimmy Iovine and Ted Fields are as conspicuous by their absence as lawyer David Kenner and Suge Knight, the villains of the piece–the producers have unearthed an alarming number of believable behind-the-scenes sources including record promoters, managers, private investigators and former associates and employees of the label. Director Savidge wisely uses talking heads to tell his story, weaving into it a wealth of archive material and previously unseen home-video footage. The epic narrative is split into discrete chapters but, with so much information and opinion flying about, at times the chronology of events becomes confused. Yet this does little to spoil a documentary that goes a long way to revealing the intimate connection between the music industry and organised crime, and the desire for power and glory that drives them both.On the DVD: As if there wasn’t enough information to digest in the documentary (which is presented in a clean 1:85.1 anamorphic format), the extra features on the DVD provide even more supplementary evidence. There are outtakes from the interviews used in the main feature, as well as additional interview footage of Snoop Dogg and Harry O. There is uncensored security camera footage of a fight in the lobby of the MGM Grand involving the Death Row entourage that preceded the death of Tupac Shakur by minutes, a music video for “Deep Cover” (the song that launched Snoop Dogg) and a fascinating audio commentary by director Savidge and producers Jeff Scheftel and Stephen A Housden, in which they relate the difficulties encountered in obtaining the trust of those they interviewed and the factors they took into consideration when constructing the film. Savidge recalls that the model they had in mind was the fractured, multi-perspective narrative of Kurosawa’s Rashomon


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