Big Stars 

IMAX's excellent All Access isn't exactly what its title claims.

Don't believe the hype. All Access, the Pink Palace's most recent IMAX offering, is not a rare opportunity for the public to go behind the scenes of an arena-sized rock concert. Not in any realistic sense anyway. It does take us behind the scenes at a number of shows, but everything is sterile and manipulated. We've seen this format before, usually on VH1. And though we have never seen it bigger, we have certainly seen it better. The format, that is, not the content. There is no way to get a real sense of the performers' true personalities, and while we are privy to rehearsals and sound checks, we are never allowed to see their private pre-show rituals. The grueling work of unloading and preparing all the lights and sound equipment is glossed over entirely, as is the drama that goes into putting together and tearing down one of these traveling monsters.

What All Access is is a filmed version of an extremely tired musical genre -- the duet album with stock and standard rockumentary-style interviews linking the performances. It allows popular performers from different generations to perform together for the viewing pleasure of young and old alike. While pitching itself as a bit of cinema verité may diminish the film's integrity, its pairing of the Dave Matthews Band and Al Green, and Mary J. Blige and Parliament-Funkadelic, B.B. King and the Roots, etc., is no doubt a wise business decision. And there can be no denying that all but the smallest handful of the performances are mighty impressive.

All Access begins with what is more like a collage than a montage. A single, smallish square about the size of an art-house movie screen shows electronica hero Moby waking up and jumping on his bed. Other squares begin to appear in rapid succession. A security guard wanders down a long, dimly lit hallway. A techie adjusts a light. The musicians appear one after the other discussing their musical influences, sometimes seriously and sometimes comically. Sting relates an encounter with jazz legend Miles Davis. Apparently Davis said, "I saw you in that movie. Man, you've got a big head." It's all fun, fast-paced, and absolutely geared for a Saturday afternoon family outing. The Pink Palace's wonderful, recently revamped digital sound system makes the auditory experience about as close to a live concert as you are likely to experience inside a movie theater.

Sting is the first major star to be showcased, and his performance of "Desert Rose," with backing vocals by Middle Eastern singer Cheb Mami, may very well be his finest recorded performance since the Police called it quits. Though the song blends a number of international styles, it's 100 percent rock-and-roll. Mami's eerie stratospheric backing vocals blend seamlessly throughout, making the song sound like some kind of lost George Harrison masterpiece.

Mary J. Blige, who is pretty darn funkadelic in her own right, joins Parliament for a good-time medley of "Flashlight," "One Nation Under a Groove," and "Atomic Dog," while frenzied fans wave posters reading, "Paper Acid." The pairing of Blige and Parliament is rivaled only by Al Green's soaring rendition of "Take Me to the River" backed up by the Dave Matthews Band. Green is so energetic as he takes command of the stage in a gold lamé jacket and dark sunglasses that the DMB (mercifully) fade into the background where they have always belonged. Though Matchbox 20 vocalist Rob Thomas has been performing with Carlos Santana for some time now, their rendition of "Smooth" seemed forced and uncomfortable. Thomas, who should have been selling the song, essentially hid behind the celebrated guitarist, and his attempts to generate onstage chemistry looked like so much leg humping. Pairing B.B. King with Phish's monstrously overrated guitarist Trey Anastasio was just a bad idea. Letting the Roots' own answer to the human beat box wheeze rhythmically over King's atypically choppy guitar work was an even worse idea.

The film's best numbers are not the duets. Moby, Kid Rock, Macy Gray, and Sheryl Crow are all allowed to do their own thing, and this quartet of performances really stands out. The K-I-D's stunning and unbelievably energetic rendition of his signature "Bawitdaba" gets so much rock it's almost overwhelming. Crow's intimate "If It Makes You Happy," performed backstage with nothing but an acoustic guitar, is so perfect that even her detractors will have no choice but to sit up and take notice. It is the raspy-voiced Gray's "Can't Wait to Meetchu," however, that steals the show, establishing her as soul sister number one, godmother of funk, and the heir apparent to one Mr. James Brown. Her band, for being so idiosyncratic, is amazingly tight, and it is safe to say that if this performance doesn't get your butt a'shaking crazy then you must not have one.

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