MTV Films made a wise purchase in picking up Hustle & Flow at Sundance: The soundtrack is killer. Rapping over music composed by Three 6 Mafia and Al Kapone, star Terrence Howard has the skills. The rest of the songs heard on screen, most of which fall into the uniquely Southern hip-hop subgenre of crunk, are also kickin'. If you can walk out of the theater having sat still through all the beats, you are in need of some serious caffeination.
But good soundtrack does not always equal good movie. If it did, Prince's Graffiti Bridge would have been a huge success. MTV will get great mileage out of the inevitable videos -- they do still show music videos occasionally, late at night, don't they? -- but what of the actual story?
Imagine a two-hour documentary about the recording of your favorite rap album, let's say Dr. Dre's The Chronic. Sounds good, right? Now subtract Dre, replacing him with someone you've never heard of -- someone who doesn't even exist in the real world. Imagine how that "rapumentary" would play at a similar length, but with utterly unfamiliar material. To approximate such an effect without paying to see a movie, watch the "making of" extra on any DVD you own, but with the sound turned down. Scintillating? Not quite.
So yeah, never mind all those ads that make Hustle & Flow look like the latest installment of Grand Theft Auto; the movie spends most of its 114 minutes focusing on the making of a demo tape. People in a studio, rapping and recording. If you're going to watch that, wouldn't you rather it actually be Dre, or Lil Jon, or whoever, rather than actors pretending to be their kind? Yes, Ludacris and Isaac Hayes are in it, but not much, and they don't perform.
The damnedest thing about it is that the characters seem interesting. They just don't really do anything interesting until about 15 minutes before the end credits roll. In the beginning, we're introduced to small-time Memphis pimp DJay (Howard) and his hoes: bitchy Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), pregnant Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and token white girl Nola (Taryn Manning), who seems to be the best at hooking. Pimping, as many songs have noted, ain't easy, and DJay dreams bigger. When he happens to run into old acquaintance Clyde, also known as Key (Anthony Anderson), and finds out that his long-lost pal is a sound engineer, the two of them decide to put together some tunes, with the help of a producer (DJ Qualls) whose day job is stocking vending machines.
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Once the tape is done, DJay is determined to get it to local-boy-gone-Hollywood Skinny Black (Ludacris), and it's at that point, finally, that some dramatic tension enters the tale. Fifteen minutes later, the movie's over. Damn. Some smarter pacing could have helped matters. As is, Hustle & Flow should be called Rap & Record, because there's only hustling in the very beginning and very end, and there sure as hell ain't no flow.
Howard burns with the intensity we're used to seeing from him in movies such as Ray, Dead Presidents and Hart's War; shame there's no place to focus that energy. And Anderson, well, he's always been capable of better things, but he seems unable to say no to any offer in any number of godawful "comedies." It's good to see him play things straight, and he appears to have lost some weight as well. The man's a talent, and even though writer-director Craig Brewer (a Caucasian, curiously enough -- not that there's anything wrong with that) isn't doing much with him here, he's still doing more than the makers of My Baby's Daddy or King's Ransom did.
Possibly the most disappointing scene is an extended side trip to a strip club, where none of the women actually take off their bikinis. Don't cheat us like that! This is an R-rated movie! Maybe the producers were skittish after Anderson got hit with a quickly dismissed sexual assault charge while on the set. Anyway, kudos to Manning for showing a little something later on and indulging the male audience.
And a warning to those unaccustomed to thick Southern accents (not hick-style Southern, mind you, but the more marble-mouthed kind): Some of the dialogue may be hard to understand. You know how the odd Scottish movie will play over here with English subtitles, even though English is apparently what's being spoken? Similar deal here.