At various points in Fade to Black, last year’s stellar concert film documenting Jay-Z’s sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, Jay breaks away from the concert buildup to provide some background information. He goes back through some of the recording process for his last LP The Black Album. In one outstanding scene, he visits megastar producer Timbaland in his Miami Beach studio, to dig up some inspiration. Planted behind his keyboard, Timbaland test-drives some of his recent creations for a decidedly less-than-impressed Jigga-man.Then comes the plaintive synth loop that will eventually become “Dirt on Your Shoulders.”Jay’s eyes start to glow like a madman’s and his “Rain Man”—his term for the flow he conjures up when the right beat drops—comes out. It’s a memorable and highly entertaining example of the creative process at work.
In its best moments, the new fiction film Hustle & Flow taps into this frenzied energy. The story of a Memphis flesh-hustler crossing over into rap, Hustle and Flow gets so much of the rhythms and feel of the Dirty South right, it can be forgiven for its occasional missteps.Terrence Howard stars as DJay, a northside pimp fed up with, as he puts it, “trying to squeeze a dollar out of a dime.”He meets up with Key (Anthony Anderson), a court recorder who longs to open his own studio.Before long, they’re stapling egg cartons to the walls of D-Jay’s henhouse for a little ghetto soundproofing.
As DJay, Howard gives an explosive performance.He’s coiled and hungry, exhausted by his life on the street but not afraid to resort to the old hustle when his back’s against the wall.He steels himself for meeting Ludacris’ Skinny Black, a former Memphis thug turned crunk sensation, the way he would any trick. Neophyte director Craig Brewer, a Memphis native, pushes the gritty, grimy, sweat-stained fabric of his hometown to the forefront. Reflective of the film’s roots in blaxploitation, Brewer hits a couple of 70s filmmaking beats, like the freeze-frame opening with the copyright year stamped beneath the title.
The film balances its seriousness with humor, a credit to the gifted performers in the supporting roles. A career comedian with a lifetime’s worth of unfunny movie appearances (Malibu’s Most Wanted, Kangaroo Jack), Anderson is toned down here.Taryn Manning (8 Mile) plays a vulnerable white hooker whose relationship with DJay grows in terms of respect and trust as the movie progresses.As pregnant hooker Shug, Taraji P. Henson has a wide-eyed sweetness; her reaction upon singing the hook in their first track is heartbreaking.The film’s details are rendered realistically, but it’s not above breeziness with respect to street cred—the nerdy white pianist (DJ Qualls) Key brings in to make beats turns out to have the most innate hip-hop sensibilities of all of them.
With a ferocious lead performance and a beat-heavy soundtrack, Hustle &Flow has a number of things to recommend it.While it slips into sentimentality occasionally, the film seems aware that, at heart, it’s basically a Rocky for the hip-hop underclass.The beauty of Hustle & Flow is that it manages to be so much more than that as well.