Turns Out Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is a Bad Girl Story, Too [Review]
Author Thembisa Mshaka breaks down the great woman behind the great man known around the world as Forbes’ Cash King, Sean “Diddy” Combs” in Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.
The last person who needs more on camera time in the music world is probably Sean “Diddy” Combs. With a vast catalogue of epic music videos, a few seasons of MTV’s Making The Band, and appearances in Monster’s Ball and A Raisin In The Sun on ABC, Diddy is a household name by all of stretches of the imagination.
But even those who are Diddy-fatigued have something to glean from his latest offering, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story. The documentary is an hour and 20 minutes of thoughtful fly-on-the wall observations, emotional behind-the-scenes footage of the Bad Boy Reunion Tour, and powerful introspection from Bad Boy label mates + associates including Mary J. Blige, Ma$e, and Carl Thomas, superstars from competing labels like Nas and Jay-Z, and record men Andre Harrell, Jimmy Iovine and Clive Davis, who cut Puff his first $40 million check to join forces with Arista Records.
I expected the backstory of Puffy as a hungry Uptown Records intern who became an impulsive and relentlessly demanding A&R executive. I expected the film to chronicle the friendship, mercurial rise and abrupt ending of Combs’s time with Christopher “The Notorious BIG” Wallace. I even expected the requisite slow motion beauty shots of his mansion, his Maybach, and his private plane.
It’s all there.
Surprisingly, while shot beautifully and reverently by director/DP Daniel Kaufman, this film is far from a puff piece on Puff. What I didn’t expect was to see Diddy at his least glamorous: being examined for respiratory infections and ordered to take vocal rest. Laying in physical therapy getting electro-stimulation treatments for an injured shoulder. Taking shots—not of whatever alcoholic beverage or sports drink he’s pushing on his fans—but in the buttocks to keep him going because he already told us, he can’t stop, won’t stop, even if it damn near lays him out.
Superhuman Diddy of the Shiny Suit and star-studded remix videos, who narrowly escaped bullets, jail and death when all three have circled around him like vultures for 25 years became something else in that moment. He became vulnerable. He admits that he was a complete asshole for much of his career, saying, “I didn’t play well with others.” Now, he’s measured in his assholery, preserving it for pushing his musicians, or reaming his creative team because all of the tour lighting is pissing him off, and it’s a week before the Barclays reunion tour dates.
It is in this unpeeling of the anatomy of a leader that another leader is discovered: Creative Tour Director, choreographer and all around badass Laurieann Gibson. She’s been in the game just as long as Puff Daddy. She got her start dancing behind Mary J. Blige, and has enjoyed sustained success for the same quarter century—no easy feat for anyone working behind megastars in this tumultuous and cutthroat industry, especially as a woman in hip-hop. Laurieann has the impossible task of keeping Sean “Diddy” Combs where she needs him, whether that’s happy, in line, in shape, or on the same page. And she has to do this while keeping watch over all the moving parts of the tour: from stage production to rehearsals to an endless stream of meetings, near catastrophic mishaps during the show, and the group dynamics of a reuniting a roster once splintered by time, money, murder, infidelity, legal disputes and defections from the label to finding religion. As Diddy puts it, “You go from Bad Boy to God. There really is nothing in between.”
The gold in this Bad Boy story is actually the bad girl running the show. Laurieann’s observations of Diddy are what humanize him. Her frenetic running, scribbling, coaching and negotiating are the story of every woman executive’s life. While we see Diddy getting a simultaneous haircut, and pedicure and massage, Laurieann’s natural beauty gets no on-demand glam-squad. She’s in leggings and a baseball cap for the entirety of the film. Nobody asks her if she’s okay. No one gets her so much as a bottle of water. These projects and people become her life, and it’s a grating, thankless grind.
Until Diddy, during a rehearsal pep talk on the eve of the show, acknowledges that he sees what we’ve been watching all along. “Every leader needs a general, and Laurieann is that general.” Laurieann is shocked out of her breakneck paced existence at her name coming over the speakers. “He’s always known I’m the general. He just never admitted it,” she confesses through a stream of tears that were about as her being exhausted as much as they were about her being verklempt. At certain points, Diddy hits the cruise control button afforded to every boss. I came away from this film knowing that while Diddy is the hero of this story, Laurieann is the soul. Hers and those of so many other unsung sheroes in entertainment deserve to get the documentary treatment. The fact that her crucial character wasn’t left on the proverbial cutting room floor is an important step in the representation of women in entertainment as more than eye candy for public consumption.
I’m not sure how long Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story will be in theaters. My feeling is this run is limited, designed to meet the necessary qualifications for award season consideration. And it certainly deserves consideration for writing, cinematography and direction. The camera work is breathtaking, and the music transports you. Sure, you could watch it on Apple Music, but why settle for a small screen? If you’re in New York City, and you have any interest at all in hip-hop, business, creativity or Bad Boy’s iconic roster, run to see this deeply inspiring, carefully crafted film at the movie theater. I hope the release widens, so student groups, hip-hop lovers, and moviegoers can experience it on the scale that Diddy does everything in his life: big.
Thembisa S. Mshaka is the author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business. A 25-year veteran of the music and creative industries, she can be found on Twitter dropping gems and real talk @PutYrDreams1st.