Hustle & Flow Review

The recent Oscar win for Best Song is just the latest addition to Hustle & Flow’s run of good fortune. Despite a protracted four year period in which the filmmakers attempted to get the project off the ground, it has since gone on to secure an experienced backer in John Singleton, been picked up by MTV Films and Paramount Classics, won the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and earned itself a surprise Oscar nod in the film of Terrence Howard’s Best Actor nomination. In many ways you could say that it’s been a triumph of the underdog success story to match that of its own narrative, although it’s doubtful that Hustle & Flow’s production was quite so edgy as this tale of a small time pimp who attempts to escape his inauspicious environs by pursuing a rap career.

Indeed, Hustle & Flow’s choice of characters and, more importantly, focus set is aside from your standard underdog offerings; it’s not quite the same as rooting for Billy Elliot amongst a grim industrial North backdrop, even if the plot mechanics stand up to comparison. Moreover, writer/director Craig Brewer never attempts to disguise these harsher realities, but rather favours that more realistic edge. The cinematography is very 1970s in its flavour (were it not for the contemporary subject matter you could very easily be mistaken); the title sequence pays homage to blaxploitation as does the cameo from Isaac Hayes (thus putting us in mind of Superfly and the grittier end of the genre’s spectrum); and the dialogue never shies away from the Southern dialects nor does it do away with the slang. All told, Hustle & Flow isn’t a film which you’d readily accuse of trying to be too pretty.

The performances likewise blend easefully into this overall mood. Howard’s Oscar nod may have a somewhat tokenistic gesture, yet it’s a deserved one nonetheless. Turning away from the typical big screen pimp, he truly inhabits a part which is hardly one that we can root for, yet at the same time also impossible to dismiss without second thought. He’s also disarmingly quiet, a facet also true of his co-star Anthony Anderson. Of course, we’ve since discovered that Anderson can act following his recurrent guest star appearances in most recent series of The Shield, but nonetheless it’s a pleasure to see him tone down the excesses which characterised his turns in Kangaroo Jack, Cradle 2 the Grave and the rest. Indeed, Hustle & Flow does well around in terms of drawing out nicely understated performances from unexpected places; even rapper Ludacris, hitherto best known on-screen for various hip-hop comedy cameos (though he’d also secured a tiny role in Paul Haggis’ Crash), convinces as an actor and not merely as a piece of stunt casting.

And yet it’s hard not to see so much of this as a mere veneer of quality. Underneath it all Hustle & Flow is a film which doesn’t quite convince. The underdog logic which drives the story – one so familiar from Rocky, Flashdance and countless others – is just too feelgood and too schematic to sit easily with the rest of the picture. Furthermore, it often seems to override much of the picture and therefore takes a great deal away; were we to remove this element then ultimately we’d be left with very little. It’s a little too sketchy, a little too superficial and, save for Howard’s lead role, never gets under the skin of its characters to the degree which the performances should allow for. Indeed, had Hustle & Flow not centred around the hip-hop and instead existed as a simple character study, it’s unlikely that it would gain half the attention it’s currently enjoying.

The Disc

Hustle & Flow comes to Region 2 DVD in fine condition, blessed with both a decent presentation and a handful of interesting extras. Thankfully the disc maintains the gritty edge to the cinematography; the image is never grainy as such, but it does have that honeyed glow rather than the usual glossy finish. Moreover, it also comes without any discernible and anamorphically enhanced of course, here at a ratio of 1.78:1. As for the soundtrack, the original Dolby Surround has been upgraded slightly to DD5.1 for this DVD release, though given Brewer’s hand in its production, it’s more than likely that it comes director approved. Indeed, there certainly don’t appear to have been any liberties taken, whilst both score and dialogue sound equally impressive.

Of the extras, the key addition is the commentary by Brewer. For the most part he acquits himself well and delivers an agreeably full listen. Everything from the autobiographical touches and the influence of Purple Rain to the use of small children as actors is touched, though occasionally the sycophancy can get a little too much. We know that Isaac Hayes is a genius, so really there’s little or no point in telling us time and again.

Elsewhere the disc also houses three featurettes encompassing Brewer and various other talking heads. ‘Behind the Hustle’ offers a generalised making of approach; ‘By Any Means Necessary’ touches on the four-year effort to get the film financed and made; and ‘Creatin’ the Crunk’ discusses the soundtrack and places it within the context of Southern music – blues, soul, Stax Records, Isaac Hayes and the like. In all three cases they’re well-mounted and generally agreeable. They’re neither too long nor too short, and the various snippets of audition footage and Howard’s rap test are definitely worth a look.

Rounding off the package we also have a few minutes worth of footage from the Memphis premiere and six specially filmed TV spots which promoted the film in the US. It’s also worth noting that optional English and Dutch subtitles are available on all extras save for the commentary which comes with English subs only.

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