All Access: Front Row, Backstage, Live! does not offer the no-holds-barred access to the excess that its name implies. That may not come as a big surprise since IMAX prides itself on maintaining its wholesome, family-entertainment values. And most of the artists highlighted in the film left their decadent periods behind decades ago. What we see on the big screen is a concert film with brief, (somewhat) enlightening interviews and thoughtful pairings of professional musicians.
All Access: Front Row, Backstage, Live! starts with a transcendent performance of "Desert Rose" by Sting with help from singer Cheb Mami that was shot in an outdoor arena in New Jersey. This performance is worth the price of admission alone. The IMAX theater's sound capabilities are in full effect, producing a lump-in-the-throat, eyes-welling-up rendition of Sting's latest hit. (Even if that Jaguar commercial in which he uses "Desert Rose" momentarily tainted both him and the song.)
The setting of the rest of the performances is a "controlled" stage set up just for All Access: Front Row, Backstage, Live! Considering the delicate equipment involved, the unwieldy IMAX cameras and the filming logistics, this is understandable. However, some spontaneity is lost and, after a few performances, the film feels a little claustrophobic, a quality opposite of the film format's strength in capturing expansive subjects. Parliament and Funkadelic barely fit on the prepared stage, and Kid Rock's performance seems tamed by it, although (and we never imagined we'd be saying this) it's nice to see KR's late sidekick Joe C. again.
Sheryl Crow turns in a unfortunately all-too-intimate performance of "If It Makes You Happy" on a New York soundstage that is alternately pretty and annoying, with the camera being kinder to her guitar than it is to her. Next, The Roots lay down a solid groove for Phish's Trey Anastasio and B.B. King, who is looking more and more like a Jim Henson creation. The two guitarists trade licks; for every three notes Anastasio plays, King plays one and still manages to smoke him.
Macy Gray wraps her unique voice around "Can't Wait to Meetchu" without any collaboration. Then the screen opens up and the film takes us back outdoors to Soldier Field, where the Dave Matthews Band and Al Green perform "Take Me to the River." They also show us that the thing missing from the controlled performances is actually what the IMAX format excels at: larger-than-life-ness. Green appears like a giant among men as his personality fills the arena and somehow dwarfs a crowd of 60,000.
The one performance that does manage to transcend the controlled environment is the pairing of Carlos Santana with matchbox 20's Rob Thomas on "Smooth." Santana's fiery backing band helps light up the screen, and Thomas (here comes another thing we never thought we'd say) holds his own with Santana's passionate leads. This live version of "Smooth" proves why the song deserved to be such a ubiquitous hit. Moby then cools it down with "Porcelain" as the end credits role.
The film and the accompanying sound system are testament to the beauty and power of music, but, if you're looking for more backstage access than watching the Dave Matthews Band sound check or witnessing Kid Rock miss an easy shot on the pool table, turn on VH1. The cable music channel delivers more drama, dish and dirt on the small screen than All Access: Front Row, Backstage, Live! brings to the very large one.