Sweet Sound of Success
Removed as I am from What’s Going On, the screening of Hustle & Flow loomed as an ordeal for me. Until a guy in the row behind defined the former as Memphis-Atlanta hip-hop, this elderly white reviewer didn’t know my crunk from my Boss Crump, nor recognize more than two cast names, one an old contemporary, the other a calculatedly ludicrous nom de chanson.
Because of the music, because many people will take a quarter-hour-to-forever to pick up on the unsubtitled filmically realistic Ebonics, and because of language, sex, and sale and use of weed, this movie will probably wind up depending on the young urban minority for an audience.
Smart money says that great numbers in one camp will decry this first commercial feature from its white director-writer as slanderous distortion of a ghetto lifestyle less uncommon than they care to admit; those of the other will avoid the film for its vocabulary and milieu. Both will have missed the point. Stripped to bare bones, Craig Brewer’s Memphis and music story is much less about rather young midlife crises --filmmaker’s and protagonist’s -- than it is a standard Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Dale Carnegie American exemplum of reformation-hard work-reward. Oscar Hammerstein’s “Happy Talk” dream come true is our national self-image, and if the plot is basic sweet stuff, remember that “rags-to-” has only two possible endings: “-riches” or “-rags.”
Rocky pales to Raging Bull as 8 Mile does to this film, not for its traditional story so much as for a thoroughly good cast highlighted by three outstanding lead performances. Swagger masks the vulnerability in all the characters, even to the overbearing ego that is successful Jaws-mouthed Skinny Black (Ludacris) and to avuncular Arnel (an Isaac Hayes shrunken far from those scowling Black Moses days).
Particularly moving is a central trio of street pimp and marijuana dealer DJay (Terrence Howard) and, from his stable of twenty-dollars-a-trick live-in ladies, young white runaway Nora (Taryn Manning) and shy, pregnant Shug (a magnificently expressive Taraji P. Henson). Existing on a one-day-ahead-of surface, they do not know their own depths. Until, that is, the chance pickup of an antiquated almost child’s Casio keyboard-synthesizer turns him to “the beat I been hearing in my head” as a way out. Fortuitously, too, he bumps into old school friend Key (Anthony Anderson), who has up to now convinced himself of churchy middle-class sound engineer happiness with straight wife Yvette (Elise Neal).
Recruiting Shelby (DJ Qualls), goofy-looking and white but a soulful astute sound-beat man, the two friends set up a poor man’s studio to record DJay’s compositions. The pimp thinks he wants only success, which will come by getting “just a shot, a chance, to have my voice heard.” But blonde braided country girl Nora is closer to it: “I want something, I don’t know what; everybody’s got something important going on in their lives.” Yvette’s conversion is too easy, Shug’s face on hearing herself sing is wonderful, as they all hop aboard the dream.
Unexpected violence -- nothing, really, by today’s blood-red norms -- leads to an all-too-familiar St. Paul Avenue handcuffing and then slammer, but no spoiler here will ruin the film. Steve James’s non-fiction Hoop Dreams is admired as one of the few to tell-it-like-it-is about the infinite odds against those who would escape through the entertainment of sports or music. If Hustle & Flow is not among those very few, it does nevertheless portray a life and a music not often done as faithfully. If, undisguised, its tale is old-fashioned yet unusually set Americana, why not? If given a chance by mainstream moviegoers, Brewer’s film will sound good vibes.
(Released by Paramount Classics and rated "R" for sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence.)