Hustle & Flow Review
Djay (Terrence Howard) is a small-time pimp and drug dealer who lives in a rundown house in Memphis with two live-in girlfriends - stripper Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), who has a young son from a previous relationship, and ex-prostitute Shug (Taraji P Henson), who is heavily pregnant with Djay's child - as well as prostitute Nola (Taryn Manning), who Djay pimps out of his car. With Nola turning tricks, Lexus stripping and Djay dealing, they manage to pay the bills but not much else. But when Djay finds himself at the same age as his father was when he died, he has something of a mid-life crisis, albeit that he's only thirty-five. His swapping of a quarter ounce of weed for a keyboard turns his mind to his teenage years when he was one of a pair of young rappers who looked to make it out of the ghetto but whilst the other, Skinny Black (Ludacris), did, becoming a hip-hop artist and mogul, Djay scrapes together what living he can.
Then a chance meeting with an old friend from high-school and local music producer, Key (Anthony Anderson), inspires Djay to get writing. He hustles a recording session with Key by visiting him late at night to demo his rhymes and along with Key and Shelby (DJ Qualls), who plays piano in church and mixes beats, Djay sets up a studio in the back room of his house to begin laying down his tracks. Calling on Lexus, Shug and Nola to support him and on Key and Shelby to help him work up his music, Djay has a deadline of 4th July, when Skinny Black comes back into town for a party at Arnel's club, the night when Djay has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put himself up before someone who matters.
The first moment in this film that stretches credibility is in Djay's acquiring of his keyboard and his first stumbling use of it. Having read the description of the film on the back of the DVD case, I was fully expecting him to exchange a packet of weed for something akin to, and I'm showing both my age and my limited knowledge of keyboards here, a Fairlight or a Synclavier. But no, it's a little Casio keyboard, the Salsa and Foxtrot rhythms of which we'll all be familiar with. "He's going to demo on that?" is the first thought that passed through my mind, which was followed by a pause whilst I waited for the tinny boom-tchk-a-boom-boom-tchk of the keyboard's very limited beatbox. Such a noise does eventually come, which is satisfying in itself, but it's also a nonsense to suggest that it is on this keyboard the Djay hauls himself out of the ghettos and onto MTV Base.
Instead, this is something of a spiritual brother to Eminem and Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile in that the hero of the piece must bounce out of his low-rent and lo-fi beginnings to produce something to build on. As in 8 Mile, a certain amount of belief must be suspended in order to fully enjoy Hustle And Flow but doing so is not without reward. From the very earliest rock'n'roll movies, which came complete with their elderly stars urging the kids to rock to the likes of The Doors, in which Kyle Maclachlan wrote the memorable introduction to Light My Fire in less time than it's taken me to write this sentence, movies about popular music have always taken liberties with the actual songwriting process. After all, who wants to see four bearded men hunched over a mixing desk all day when they could be watching buff young studs enjoying the rich pickings of the life of a rock star.
Here, of course, it's no different with Djay producing recordings of a quality that wouldn't shame a studio in a back room in a house in the Memphis ghettos with boarded-up windows and egg cartons stapled to the wall. Thankfully, though, good though the music is, and it certainly doesn't shame the movie, Hustle And Flow isn't really about the actual music as such, more about Djay's efforts to better himself and to realise his dream of recording. We hear this in his opening monologue, which, through the dazed thinking of a longtime user of blow - marijuana, not cocaine - has Djay explain what separates mankind from other animals. It's not that this makes any particular sense, more that underneath the inarticulate search for a thread to his thinking, Djay is clearly looking for something more than pimping Nola, the girl with whom he part-shares his house as well, as the film opens, as his car. The trouble that the film has is in taking a pimp, drug-dealer and chauffeur and presenting him to the audience as someone who we should care about, indeed someone that we see being redeemed through the course of the movie and although it's a challenge, writer/director Craig Brewer appears to have risen to it.
Beginning with the pre-title sequence, Brewer looks to have taken the view that so long as the film looks good and has arresting imagery that much of the battle with the audience will have been won. With that in mind, Brewer steers his film in an old-school direction with a score that owes much to Stax, a looping script for the titles that was last used some thirty years ago and a place in the cast for Isaac Hayes, who brings with him a legendary recording career and, thanks to the covers of Hot Buttered Soul and Black Moses, an attitude that couldn't have any more soul. Really before you can object, Brewer has brought the audience into Djay's world and although it isn't a place that many of us would want to go near, we're also hoping that he is successful in moving on and in finding some harmony in the shambles of a life that he leads. Similarly, and although Brewer and Terrence Howard keep Djay as a complicated and difficult antihero, they're wary not to let the audience's sympathies slip away. As an example, they're careful not to have Djay hit Lexus when, after one taunt too many, he moves her and her young son out of the house, simply setting them down on the front step rather than beating her.
Brewer and Howard also earn plaudits for ensuring that their film doesn't sway down the route of showing that Djay's life isn't the one that's celebrated on countless hip-hop tracks wherein pimps and drug dealers are barely able to move under the weight of gold, diamonds, weaponry, weed and women. Instead, Djay, often by his own admission, is a failure and what counts and what makes his recording a success is the way that Shug and Nola rally around him to support him in any way that they can. Therefore, as good as Howard is, it's the performances of Taraji P Henson and Taryn Manning that make the film, coming together around Djay in a way that you wouldn't expect of the two prostitutes that he pimps for. And yet, these aren't tarts with a heart, more that Shug is looking for she and Djay to fall in love again - the film implies that he has been rejecting her since she fell pregnant - whilst Nola is after nothing more than for someone to look at her without thinking of how much it would cost to fuck her in the ass.
As Shelby, DJ Qualls brings a touch of comedy to the film, as does Anthony Anderson, who gives and edge to his character with his regular appearances at Djay house being a way to get away from a marriage that he feels is a little tired. That said, I was never entirely sure that I was meant to be laughing at some of the things that I did. I accepted that Key's, "I think of him as light-skinned!" to Djay's telling him that Shelby is white is intentional but I wasn't sure if Djay's search for an alternative title to Beat That Bitch was a comment on the rapper's inarticulacy or was a joke. After rejecting Djay's alternative title of Stomp That Ho for being just as inappropriate for radio, they settle on Whoop That Trick and, as Kyle Maclachlan did for The Doors, write an anthem in less time than it takes a kettle to boil.
Happily, the film ends well but not as you might expect. Djay does indeed meet Skinny Black at Arnel's club during his 4th July stopover in Memphis but it doesn't conclude with a favourable outcome for either of the two men. What happens won't necessarily come as a surprise to anyone with more than a passing interest in the business behind hip-hop - as an example, it was reported in Ronin Ro's Have Gun Will Travel that Vanilla Ice signed over the 25% of the publishing rights from his album II The Extreme to Suge Knight of Death Row Records and his clients when Knight attacked the white rapper's bodyguards before walking him out onto the balcony of a hotel room and reminding him that they were fifteen floors up - but Hustle And Flow still ends well, bringing Djay's various associates together in a way that wouldn't have been possible had he simply negotiated the deal with Skinny Black himself. As Rocky, a film that this can also be easily compared, ends with his defeat in the ring against Apollo Creed, so Hustle And Flow appears to end on a slight note of defeat but only in that we don't see Djay rolling through the Memphis streets in a Bentley. We do see him smile, though, which suggests that things will get better, only that such sights are not for this film and likely not for another. Hip-hop is often betrayed by those who make it and there's no indication that Djay would necessarily be any different so leaving him as we and Brewer do is probably for the best.
Whilst the picture is grainy and a little scratchy, it feels that Craig Brewer deliberately left it that way to draw attention to the environments in which Djay lives but the DVD handles this without a problem, able to portray the bright sunlight of the Memphis days just as well as it does the darkness of the interior of Djay's home. At times, and in spite of the poverty of the locations chosen by Brewer, Hustle And Flow is attractively grim but the movie and this DVD captures the feel of the story well. The 5.1 soundtrack is even better with outstanding use of the rear channels and, unsurprisingly, the subwoofer with the quiet mumblings of Djay being just as clear as the louder recording sessions in his home. Finally, the feature is subtitled in English throughout.
Commentary: Hustle And Flow is writer/director Craig Brewer's third film - The Poor And The Hungry (2000) and Resolutions of the Complacent Men (2003) preceded it - and although he doesn't take to this like a seasoned professional, he does provide a chatty, likeable commentary that reveals the often shoestring nature of the production. Sounding to have been financed by John Singleton, Hustle And Flow makes good use of the Memphis that Craig Brewer grew up in and he takes pride in highlighting locations that he'd often thought of using in a movie. That sense of being proud of his home town is also felt in his use of local musicians, rappers and actors and having recorded this after the release of the film, there's also a sense of Brewer's belief in Memphis being vindicated after Hustle And Flow's success at the box office.
Behind The Hustle (27m19s): As you'd expect from the title, this is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Hustle And Flow, opening with the cast reading through the script before moving on to interviews with the cast and crew, including director Craig Brewer and producer John Singleton as well as various pieces of footage taped throughout the production. Whilst not long, it contains pretty much all that you might want to know about the production, from learning that Terrence Howard's favourite artist is Kenny Rogers - so not well placed to be a rap artist, then - to hearing that Taryn Manning was first choice to play Nola after Craig Brewer cut a photograph out of a magazine with the exact look that she ended up with in Hustle And Flow.
By Any Means Necessary (14m39s): Something of a companion piece to Behind The Hustle, I imagine that the two were used to present Hustle And Flow to various press agencies and outlets, with one rarely being seen alongside the other. Unfortunately, both are present on this DVD and this shorter one duplicates much that is in the other but without having the luxury of an extra fifteen minutes or so to wander down more trivial routes that the making of the film took during its production. This isn't bad but Behind The Hustle edges it over this one on account of it being that bit more interesting.
Creatin' The Crunk (13m40s): If you watch this movie thinking that the score sounds familiar then congratulate yourself on hearing the hands and the soul of various Stax session players who some thirty years ago contributed to Isaac Hayes' score to Shaft and Truck Turner. This time around, with Hayes now in front of the camera rather than being back in the Stax recording studios, composer Scott Bomar is seen guiding the sessions that resulted in a soundtrack almost the equal of Hayes' classic recordings and is interviewed here, as is Craig Brewer. Brewer also introduces Al Kapone, a Memphis-based rapper who produced the hip-hop tracks that appear in the movie and who is interviewed here about going from selling his CDs out of the back of his car to contributing to the soundtrack of a movie from MTV.
Memphis Hometown Premiere (4m53): Ever want to see just how far a town will go in support of a locally-produced movie? Then this is the short feature for you in which what looks to be all of Memphis rolls over for Craig Brewer, John Singleton and the cast of Hustle And Flow as they show up for the premiere of the movie at a shopping mall and to hear the mayor announce that today, being 6 July 2005, is Craig Brewer Hustle And Flow Day.
Promotional Spots (3m37s): Six of them, none lasting longer than 42s are included here and they all feature various members of the cast talking to camera in character, intercut with footage from Hustle And Flow.
Previews (9m50s): 50 Cent, or Curtis Jackson as he's billing himself here, appears in Get Rich Or Die Tryin' (2m33s), the trailer of which is included on this disc. 50 Cent is the surely the worst hip-hop artist to break through since Tupac and although he's nowhere near as deluded, he is almost terminally stupid. In fact, he couldn't appear any more dense unless he was born with a pointy head and a birthmark on his forehead in the shape of a D. Had he been born over here, he'd have spent all of his academic life studying metalwork but thanks to being able to survive multiple shootings, he has become a hip-hop star with Get Rich Or Die Tryin' being, like Eminem's 8 Mile, the movie to draw Hollywood's attention to him. One continues to hope that they'll pass given that, on the evidence of this, he acts as well as he raps, which isn't well at all.
This part of the disc also includes trailers for Four Brothers (2m31s), The Bad News Bears (2m29s) and The Honeymooners (2m16s).
I suspect that Hustle And Flow won't ever achieve the kind of success enjoyed by 8 Mile, as much to do with Eminem being that much more well-known, and certainly more famous then Ludacris, as it was its bigger budget. I dare say that the colour of the leading cast may also have had something to do with it, with major film companies, like the record companies, seeing much greater potential in a white-skinned leading man than a black one.
And yet Hustle And Flow is a much better film, with Djay, despite not being a sympathetic character, drawing out one's emotions in a way that Eminem rarely did. Craig Brewer is destined for much bigger projects than this but when he looks back on his career, he'll not be shamed by this in the slightest - it's a superb, lo-fi effort with a handsome, homebrew look to it, ably captured on an excellent DVD release.
Last updated: 26/06/2018 09:19:57