Cyrano de Bergerac was a real French dramatist whose exploits inspired Edmond Rostand to write an 1897 play that made de Bergerac forever famous. Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of the story of this man with an overly large nose who loved Roxane but instead helped a young fellow named Christian woo her by putting words into his friend’s mouth?
Rostand’s play was a tragedy, with Cyrano denying he was the author of the eloquent letters and speech, even as Roxane figured out what had been happening. He dies in her arms, never admitting he was the one. That played with 19th century crowds, but to modern audiences it just seems plain dumb. So film versions—and there have been many—eliminate that part, opting for something more upbeat. In “Roxanne,” for example, a 1987 comedy-romance starring Steve Martin as a long-nosed fire chief and Daryl Hannah as the lovely Roxanne, filmmakers played it totally for laughs and got the two principles together at the end, while Chris was exposed for what he was: too shallow to woo a smart star-gazer like Roxanne.
So why am I saying all this in a review of a Disney Channel movie about a hip-hop competition? Because “Let It Shine” is another clever retooling of the Cyrano de Bergerac plot—one that brings the now-mythic archetype to a new generation.
In this version, 16-year-old Cyrus DeBarge is a talented rap musician, but he’s self-conscious of his not-so-good looks—especially compared to his “homey” Kris (Trevor Jackson). Girls gravitate toward Kris, but seem to find Cyrus transparent. That’s the story of his life, and it keeps him from having the confidence to mix it up in the rap challenge at the Atlanta club where he works as a busboy (unbeknownst to a father, a minister who’s absolutely opposed to rap and what that club stands for). Even when he’s made fun of by a top rapper/bully named Lord of Da Bling (Brandon Mychal Smith), he’s so shy and timid that he just walks away.
All the Disney Channel elements are in place: the overbearing and disapproving parents, the caterpillar of a star who’s transformation to a butterfly we’ll witness, the bullies that need to be dealt with, the best friend forever, and the dream that, in true Disney fashion, will ultimately come true. As in all things Disney the message is positive: dream big, work hard, stay on the straight and narrow, and good things will happen to you.
The plot kicks in when the guys see a girl they used to go to grade school with on television. Roxanne (Coco Jones) is now a successful singer in the Beyonce mold, and darned if she isn’t announcing a contest for rappers to submit tapes of their best songs in order to become the next big rap star. She’ll pick the best one. Kris and Cyrus both send in songs—Kris, something he threw together at the last minute; Cyrus, a song he’s been polishing for weeks. But Cyrus includes a photo of the two guys, and of course Roxanne immediately thinks that “Truth,” as the entrant calls himself, is the good-looking Kris, rather than plain old Cyrus. So when her entourage shows up at the club and pronounces Kris the winner, though they quickly learn that there’s been a mix-up, Kris asks Cyrus if he’ll let him continue to be lauded as the winner because he “has a thing” for Roxanne.
All the main characters are likable, and Smith is the kind of villain you love to hate and hate to love. And while “Let It Shine” fits two different formulae—the de Bergerac myth and the typical Disney Channel plot—it’s well done and accomplishes what it sets out to do. The target audience (‘tweens and teens) should go for this because of the casting, the music, and the rock-solid plot that has a little more depth than the usual light live-action fare. Run-time is 104 minutes.
“Let It Shine” is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, “enhanced” for 16x9 monitors, meaning that it fills the screen. It’s Disney’s standard quality for a standard def release, which is a cut above average. Colors pop, edges have strong delineation, and black levels are strong. The level of detail is also very good for a standard def release, especially if you have a player that upconverts.
The audio is only an English Dolby Digital 2.0, which is surprising for a musical. It’s clear, but there’s nothing much else to say about it, because it’s all so concert-stage front heavy. Subtitles are in English SDH, French and Spanish.
This is billed as the “extended edition,” and for Disney that usually means an end song that goes on a bit longer, like the Ewok celebration in “Return of the Jedi.” My daughter watched it on TV and thinks that a guardian angel song was added. The combo pack comes with a digital copy, but that’s the only bonus feature other than an extended scene of Cyrus' rap battle.
If these kids did their own singing, they’ve got bright futures ahead of them. And leave it to Disney to clean up rap so that, apart from insults aimed at another singer during competition, there’s no bad language, no misogynistic lyrics, and no glorification of violence. In other words, parents don’t have to worry about their kids watching this one.