Note: In the following joint review, John J. Puccio, Dean Winkelspecht, and Yunda Eddie Feng all wrote up their thoughts on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Movie According to Dean:
Terrence Howard earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his performance in Craig Brewer's hip-hop drama "Hustle & Flow," and the film pulled home an unlikely Music Oscar for the tune "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." Against Kathleen York and Michael Becker's song "In the Deep" from "Crash" and Dolly Parton's "Travelin' Thru" from "Transamerica," a rap song about a pimp seemed the least likely to earn a victory on Academy Awards night. Howard, on the other hand, earned kudos for his performance in "Crash." The very busy actor didn't pull home a gold statue in 2005 but certainly has the talent for a victory in another year.
Set in Memphis, Tennessee, "Hustle & Flow" is a solid film from director Craig Brewer, a man with a definite passion for music. Terrence Howard stars as Djay, a pimp who has looked back on his life and realized he has done nothing but deal weed and pimp whores. Djay is determined to do something with his life, and his passion for hip-hop music leads him into assembling a team comprised of his friend Key (Anthony Anderson) and a white church pianist Shelby (D.J. Qualls). With some of his prostitutes providing backing vocals, the unlikely trio of a clean-cut family man, a skinny white guy, and a bona-fide pimp work hard to lay down tracks and create a demo tape that will allow Djay to follow in the footsteps of another local thug turned superstar, Skinny Black (Ludacris). A local bartender, Arnel (Isaac Hayes of "Shaft" fame), has arranged a meeting between Djay and Skinny Black. Skinny is typically unhappy with the quality of weed he gets, and Arnel has backed Djay's quality of product and arranged for Djay to supply Skinny Black with high quality hydroponics during a hometown visit by the successful rapper.
The world of hip-hop and gangster rap is filled with stories of drug dealers who have become successful rappers in the entertainment world. From the early days of pioneers like Eric "Eazy-E" Wright to modern artists such as The Game and 50 Cent, rap is filled with bad boys who have used their purported gangsta beginnings to write hardcore and personal songs about the violence and hard times associated with growing up in the hood. "Hustle & Flow" is a film that uses these themes, and along with the powerful performance of Terrence Howard and the strong writing and direction of Craig Brewer, the movie paints a believable picture of a man who gets by as a pimp and drug dealer but destines to make a living as a rapper and get out of the seedy underworld life. Though he doesn't treat his girls with much respect or tenderness, Djay cares for those around him, and deep down he is a man with a heart and with feelings; all of which can be heard through his hard-hitting flow.
The supporting cast of "Hustle & Flow" did not receive the attention and accolades that Terrence Howard received, but they are all quite entertaining in this little film. The big man, Anthony Anderson, is a warm individual who has separated himself from growing up with Djay and life on the streets and found himself a nice house, a loving wife, and a respectable life. The unlikely scene-stealer in the film is DJ Qualls, the skinny, white, nerdy boy from "Road Trip." In this film, he plays the white musical genius who loves rap music and understands where it comes from. His "Can we all get along and just smoke some weed?" demeanor brings a lighthearted and multicultural appeal to "Hustle & Flow." Hearing him sing the hook for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" is downright hilarious, but believable in its honesty. Taryn Manning and Taraji P. Henson are the two ladies who portray two of the last whores pimped out by Djay, and both are great in their roles.
I love rap music. I always have. But "Hustle & Flow" is a film that may not appeal to those that have a bias against rap. It can certainly find its audience, much in the way Eminem found an audience with his semi-biographical film "8 Mile." The film's director, Craig Brewer, a white man with a love of Elvis Presley, Memphis blues, and other forms of music, created another musical delight with "Black Snake Moan," but perhaps his being a white man making a black man's music has allowed "Hustle & Flow" to have a more universal appeal. Backed by veteran director John Singleton, who made the incredible "Boyz in the Hood," the film has a solid crew of filmmakers. The film was dedicated to the late Sam Phillips, the man responsible for discovering a young man named Elvis Aaron Presley. Phillips' life was the inspiration for the film and set to the modern stories of poor African-American males who have emerged from the wretched ghettos of the world to become chart-toppers, the film is a great depiction of a fictional person making a rise from thug to star. This is one of the better rap films to come out of Hollywood in quite some time. 8/10
The Movie According to Eddie:
As he is today, actor Terrence Howard was busy in 2004-05, appearing in "Crash," "Four Brothers," and "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." However, his best performance was in "Hustle & Flow," which utilized his winning exuberance to great effect.
The white Curtis Hanson, who directed the "white" "L.A. Confidential," enjoyed a lot of critical and commercial success with "8 Mile," which was based-on-the-true-story of a down-on-his-luck guy (Eminem) who uses rap to make it to the big time. Both "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" and "Hustle & Flow" have similar back stories. The white (Irish) Jim Sheridan usually directs white (Irish) movies, but he helmed "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," which was based-on-the-true-story of rapper 50 Cent's life. The white Craig Brewer wrote and directed "Hustle & Flow," which incorporates a lot of biographical details from Brewer's own life. Brewer isn't a rapper, but his movie's main character is a composite of things that Brewer saw or experienced.
Craig Brewer grew up in Memphis, and one day while driving through the city, he saw a black pimp driving an old Chevrolet Caprice. In the passenger seat was a white hooker, and the pimp was doing his best to sell the hooker to Brewer. This encounter led Brewer to create an imaginary story--what if the pimp was a smart, eloquent fellow with some musical talent? Thus, Djay (Howard) and his crew were born.
Djay "takes care of" Nola (Taryn Manning), Shug (Taraji P. Henson), and Lexus (Paula Jai Parker). Shug is pregnant by one of her clients, and she stays at home to take care of Lexus's son. One day, Djay meets a former schoolmate (Anthony Anderson), who takes him to a church choir session. The singing inspires Djay to write rap lyrics and to recruit his schoolmate to record a demo tape.
Despite being set in Memphis and being about music, "Hustle & Flow" never refers to Elvis Presley. This is just as well since Elvis isn't really a part of today's cultural landscape. Any mention of him in the movie would have been distracting.
The movie doesn't sugarcoat pimping and turning tricks, which is admirable and the appropriate thing to do. Unfortunately, Djay's quest is presented in such a positive light that the script glosses over the bad things that he does. In one scene, he tosses out Lexus and her son. We never find out what happens to them. In another scene, Djay selfishly forces Nola to sleep with someone so that he can get a free microphone. The microphone is purely for him, unlike the money that Nola makes (which at least helps feed her). While we see Nola blow up at Djay, later, everyone acts as if nothing happened.
The movie also fails to sustain the energy that is apparent in its first half. When Djay and his team first start putting their tracks together, it's exciting and exhilarating watching the creative process come alive. However, as the movie progresses, it loses steam, and some music sessions and domestic scenes feel tired and rote.
The real reason to see "Hustle & Flow" is Terrence Howard. I didn't think that he was particularly convincing in "Crash," but here, he sells the material despite his character's flaws. In fact, Howard is so good that he makes it easy for viewers to overlook Djay's mean streak.
"Hustle & Flow" is a technically impressive feature, and Terrence Howard delivers a great performance in it. Unfortunately, it has a rushed ending that feels clichéd (oh, oh, we gots gangstas shootin' at each othah) and too pat. Also, the movie is content to observe and to celebrate what its main character is doing. Therefore, it never really interrogates the destructive influence he has over other people. I'm not saying that the script should condemn Djay, but it shouldn't have lionized him so completely. 6/10
The Movie According to John:
There are a lot of reasons for liking "Hustle & Flow," not the least of which, as already noted, is how star Terrence Howard brings the movie's main character to life with conviction and energy. I'm sure Howard will go on to many more successful roles, but, frankly, this is a tough act to follow. In one of the accompanying bonus items, the filmmakers explain that Howard did not initially want to make this movie; he wanted no part of playing what he thought might be a stereotypical, no-account pimp, and the filmmakers had to persuade him to do the role. How fortuitous and fateful life is, eh? It turned out to be the role of a lifetime (so far), and the man gave it his all. Djay is a hard case, all right, but from the very beginning of the story we see in him a touch of humanity. Then, we get no magical, miraculous conversion of his soul to righteousness; we simply see an incremental, naturalistic progression of his inner self coming forth, the goodness still partially hidden by the movie's conclusion. There are almost no places in the film where we can say the character of Djay is one way or another because like most people he is complex, the good coming out one minute, the bad the next. But there is a touching scene in a church when Djay is affected, perhaps for the first time in his life, by the human voice, by a singer of exquisite vocal beauty, and we see a tear on young man's cheek. Maybe, we think, there is something there beneath that hard facade after all. That and a comment Nola, one of his women, makes to him earlier on when she asks him what it is he really does. The fact is, he realizes he's wasting his life as a pimp, and these incidents add up to turning points in his life.
Another reason for my liking the film is the music. Dean already told you how much he always loved rap, but I have to admit that as an old fogey, I have never cared for it. I have generally found pure rap and even its variations in hip-hop and crunk most often repetitious and crude, sometimes violent, profane, misogynist, and demeaning. Yet I enjoyed most everything I heard in "Hustle & Flow." This may have been, as Dean pointed out in his review, that the film's creator, Craig Brewer, is white, and as such softened the impact of the music somewhat to make it more universally acceptable. I'm still not convinced that "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" should have won an Oscar for Best Original Song, but it is a good song, and it beats most of the drivel that passes for songwriting in most of the music industry these days.
Yet another reason for my liking the film is its supporting cast, all of whom are terrific, especially Anthony Anderson as a sweetheart of a guy, Key; Taryn Manning and Taraji P. Henson as Nola and Shug, two of Djay's prostitutes whom we see trying to better themselves and who both provide heartbreaking contributions to the story line; Paula Jai Parker as Lexus, the prostitute that holds Djay back; D.J. Qualls as Shelby, the convivial and supportive backup artist ("You know he white, right?"); Elise Neal as Yevette, Key's hesitant but eventually understanding wife; and even rapper Ludacris and bluesman Isaac Hayes in minor parts.
And I liked writer/director Brewer's whole concept for the movie, starting with the obvious 1970s, B-movie flavor of its opening shots. Basically, it's an old-time rags-to-riches, poor-boy-makes-good story brought up to date. It's "Rocky" in the world of music or a kind of "Jazz Singer" for the modern world, although, to be fair, it hasn't quite the charm of "Rocky" or the first "Jazz Singer." Yet those comparisons remain apt, and certainly the movie has all the vigor of those earlier films.
Even though there is an overly melodramatic incident at the film's end that tends to disrupt its tone, it isn't enough to do much harm, and it helps to push the film out with a shot. "Hustle & Flow" is ultimately an inspiring and ennobling character study in which love and respect trump pure success. It's a worthy watch. 7/10
The thing about this HD DVD video is that it probably looks as much like the original print as possible, which is both good and not so good. Unlike Brewer's next film, "Black Snake Moan," in which the HD picture looked to me too slick, glossy, and clean for its own good, the director obviously intended "Hustle & Flow" to look gritty, down-and-dirty. Either that or Brewer couldn't afford very good film stock because the movie displays more than a little grain in some scenes. But the key word is "some," because other scenes look as clean as a pin. Go figure. Anyway, the VC-1 high-definition transfer does not appear to have added any additional grain or noise of its own, and, thus, what we saw in a movie theater is what we get on the disc.
While the high definition here is better than most anything you're likely to see in standard definition, it is only so-so among HD releases. Nevertheless, the transfer's strong, deep black levels help detail to stand out well and help the 1080 resolution to show up to its best advantage. Colors are natural, if appropriately subdued, and while darker, murkier scenes exhibit a fair amount of grain, it is never excessive; and, as I say, it helps to convey the filmmaker's intent in creating a grim mood for the story.
The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio upstages its high-def video partner by providing good, punchy, wide-ranging sound. It's true that most of what the soundtrack has to offer is dialogue and music, but both come through admirably. We hear what capable sound there is from the very beginning as the music conveys a deep bass line punctuating a clear midrange, with plenty of rear-channel effects everywhere. Yes, it's sometimes loud, as rap music often is, but it provides all the dynamics the music needs, with a wide stereo spread, too, and an abundance of both ambient bloom and specific, localized sonics in the surrounds. There may not be as much here for the DD+ to do as in, say, a typical modern action movie, but for what it does do, it is most enjoyable.
There is a goodly assortment of extras on the HD DVD, not the least of which is an audio commentary by the movie's writer and director, Craig Brewer. He seems a knowledgeable fellow on the subject of popular music and seems equally enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge with us. It seems like a more personal commentary than we usually get, not always just about the technicalities of the filmmaking but about the music and the characters and the people involved with the project. Next, we get "Behind the Hustle," a twenty-seven-minute, behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the film. After that is an even better little feature, the fourteen-minute "By Any Means Necessary," in which the filmmakers (director Brewster and producers John Singleton and Stephanie Allain) explain how difficult it was for them to get the film made. Then, there is "Creatin' Crunk," thirteen minutes on the film's music.
After those items, we get some smaller segments: About four minutes' coverage of the film's Memphis hometown première; three minutes of Paula Jai Parker's audition; a two-minute portion of Ludacris and Terrence Howard rehearsing together; two extended scenes; and an acoustic version of "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp."
Things wrap up with nineteen scene selections but no chapter insert; two widescreen theatrical trailers in high definition (VC-1); six promotional spots of varying lengths; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. And since this is a Paramount HD DVD, we also get bookmarks, a counter for elapsed time; pop-up menus; and a cute, little red case.
"Everybody gotta have a dream" says Djay at the end of the movie, and it's a good summing up of the writer/director's vision as well as the main character's. "Hustle & Flow" may try to look all hard and realistic, but at its core it's really about heart. It's an old-fashioned morality play in which goodness and love prevail over bitterness and callousness. In the final analysis, it's about people finding themselves through their need for one another. Quite uplifting, really.