Story Remains While Cultures Change
Although I can't remember who said it or exactly how it was said, I often like to recall this quote, "There are really only seven stories in the world, and every new story you hear is a variation of one of these seven." I think of this whenever I wonder what the point of going to see a movie is, especially one like 8 Mile. If every story has already been told before in some fashion, then a movie's value is surely not solely attributed to its story.
If that's the case, then what is its value? If we take something like Sweet Home Alabama, a typical romantic comedy, as an example, the best answer may be that it offers a familiar tale to comfort its audience in a non-threatening way. And since each new generation is composed of a new audience, this comfort-story needs to be re-told for the sake of assurance. The worst answer would be that it has no actual artistic value -- that it is disposable because the movie will surely be made again with the next up-and-coming actress, with little to make it significantly distinguishable.
Can we be as cynical about 8 Mile? No surprises await us in the story of a young man struggling to live life while trying to maintain a livelihood within a harsh and uncaring world. Ah, but this is where the unique format of the motion picture shows how valuable it can be. For what else can be used to so vividly capture the most important element in a story like this -- its cultural setting? Surely, this is one of the more ephemeral entities in the history of any country; and, thankfully, some of these elements have been documented on film, allowing us to be able to attach color and personality to the eras of the past.
The movie I thought most about while watching 8 Mile was Saturday Night Fever, mainly because I happened to watch it a week earlier. There, John Travolta played a young man, not easily likeable, who slowly realizes how empty his lifestyle is. Meanwhile, he indulges in a passion he has a strong talent for. This could easily be the story of any male youth from any generation. What makes Saturday Night Fever unique is how it re-creates the disco scene. I was a child in the '70s, yet I didn't get much exposure to this cultural phenomenon. Thanks to Saturday Night Fever, I was transported to a place I would never have experienced otherwise -- where else would I have been able to catch Travolta and company burning up that strangely lit floor? The identifiable angst of his character added weight to the setting -- his story is familiar and so his world was made more real to me.
Transplant this idea to the underground hip-hop world of 1995 Detroit and we have 8 Mile. Eminem, the controversial real-life rapper in his acting debut, stars as his own version of the troubled young man with personality flaws, facing a go-nowhere dilemma while maintaining his sanity with his personal passion -- rhyming. It's a rather serious business -- young rhymers test their mettle by participating in "battles," on the surface a put-down contest where two participants take turns verbally slicing each other, but at heart a tense showcase for the abilities to think on one's feet, construct rhythms and wordplay, and arouse the cheers and sympathies of an audience. It's a fascinating, if not relatively marginalized, pasttime, one which sees its power diminished by the music industry through which it gains its explosure -- improvisation is, after all, almost totally lost on a record.
Leave it to a film to help reconstruct the scenario and the atmosphere, placing the sub-cultural phenomenon in a context that we can easily step into. The story of the struggling young man must still be there, and all Eminem is required to do is to make it believable. He does so convincingly -- director Curtis Hanson wisely exploits Eminem's natural charisma and glaring intensity in place of exploring what range he may or may not have. We follow his character as he deals with friends, family, job, and reputation. His hope for that ticket out of his dead-end situation rests on his chances of securing an opportunity to record a rap demo he is currently writing. Hanson and his cast and crew compentently create a believable slice of life, but the real appeal of the film lies in the moments when Enimem and fellow rhymers show how skillfully they can appropriate the music and rhythm of any recorded piece and turn it in to a base for improvisational wordplay. They make as easy use of Lynard Skynard's "Sweet Home Alabama" as they do of a generic drumbeat loop (ironically, 8 Mile makes far better use of the song "Sweet Home Alabama" than the aforementioned movie of the same name did). 8 Mile's finale is especially rousing, one of this year's strongest showstoppers.
Movies like 8 Mile will always have a place as a story worth telling. It's a story that will never go away, an eternal reflection of youth throughout multiple generations, for each new life is surely spent learning what others who have gone before have already learned. But for each new era, that reflection shows us the different exciting ways in which the youth could vent frustrations with displays of artistry, skill, talent and determination. As long as young people find new ways to lose themselves while finding themselves, the movies will be there to showcase their stories.
(Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.)
Released by Universal and rated "R" for language, sexuality, violence, and some drug use.