[box cover]

Hustle & Flow

The basic premise of Hustle & Flow (2005) isn't new: It's about a talented underdog desperately shooting for his Big Break. In Hustle's case, that underdog is a "dirt-rascal" thirtysomething pimp (Terence Howard) who drags everyone he knows into his last-ditch effort to make a rap album, then tries to hand the demo tape to a visiting hip-hop superstar (Ludacris). The movie's set in the desperate Memphis "crunk" scene, where rappers homebrew simple, gritty beats with a reckless, lo-fi Southern flavor. But taken on its plot points, Hustle's story is the scaffold of a thousand tales about Big Dreamers, in movies ranging from Rocky to Breaking Away to, dear Lord, Glitter. And if we might make the story of Hustle & Flow sound even less original before praising it to the high heavens, hip-hop has already served as the playground for several recent underdog movies — from the very good (8 Mile) to the considerably less-so (Get Rich or Die Tryin').

But when you factor in God's details — the writing, acting and filmmaking — Hustle & Flow adds up to something amazing and universal. Writer-director Craig Brewer's movie is electric. It's sweaty, unpretty, and powerfully alive. It transcends genre. It looks behind hip-hop posturing to find human beings "making music… by any means necessary." It has a lazy, character-driven '70s vibe. It's the best movie about songwriting since DiG! And it contains an absolute sledgehammer of a performance by Terence Howard. Howard's a working actor with a few dozen roles behind him (including one in Glitter, actually). And if there's any cinematic justice, Hustle & Flow will catapult him into the prestige ranks. His honey-tongued Memphis pimp, DJay, isn't a particularly nice man; in one rough scene, he throws one of his whores and her howling illegitimate son out of his house in the middle of the night. And he seethes with the resentment of a thirtysomething who's starting to see his future ossify in failure. But he still nourishes a kernel of righteous creativity — and three chance meetings transform his vague anger into a full-on midlife crisis. He's hired to bring some premium weed to a private Fourth of July party for Skinny Black — a big-name rapper who dropped rhymes at DJay's rival school a decade and change earlier. Then a street hustler gives DJay a vintage Casio keyboard. And DJay runs into a school buddy, Key (Anthony Anderson), who now works as a church sound engineer. After a transcendent moment in Key's church where DJay and his white-trash hooker (Taryn Manning) are moved to tears by a gospel singer, D wakes up and conscripts everyone and everything in his life — Anderson, his house, even his prostitutes — to a single cause: helping him make a demo tape he can tuck into Skinny's pocket.

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Hustle & Flow is one of the first movies about music to actually show, in its entirety, the long process of making a song. "There hasn't been a movie which is really showing people creating music," Brewer said in a 2005 interview with BlackFilm.com. "Rap music is usually geared towards performance, and there's always a rap-off, or… that one label owner is going to be in the audience. Where I think the sparks fly is when producers sit down and create something." And so Brewer lingers on every step of the recording process, never once showing DJay performing in public. Working with Key and a gawky white kid with impeccable production skills (D.J. Qualls), D writes and re-writes lyrics, finds the right beat, and layers in backup vocals, with creative arguments threatening to destroy or elevate the enterprise at every turn. It's quietly thrilling, even if you're not a hip-hop fan, to watch DJay and his ad hoc family unearth long-buried ambitions as they become partners in the pimp's crazy, tragic plan. It's especially joyful to watch Shug (Taraji P. Henson), an "employee" sidelined by pregnancy, find her voice as a backup singer. As DJay channels his anger into his surprisingly excellent rhymes (urgently performed by Howard), he achieves a sort of gorgeous, complicated nobility that makes his fateful meeting with Skinny an absolute nail-biter. Brewer shoots it all with an eye to the '70s — taking his time, letting scenes breathe, putting character before flash. Cinematographer Amy Vincent captures the sweltering heat in a way that recalls Do the Right Thing, underscoring the film's broiling emotions. During its theatrical release, Hustle & Flow was niche-marketed as a film about the Memphis rap scene, but it's also about something far more universal: waking up and finding salvation by telling your story. And buoyed by Howard's rude charm, it was one of the best films of 2005.

Paramount's DVD release of Hustle & Flow offers a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Writer-director Craig Brewer offers a solo commentary track, during which he freely discusses his influences and creative processes. Also on board are the featurettes "Behind the Hustle" (27 min.), "By Any Means Necessary" (14 min.), "Creatin' Crunk" (13 min.), footage from the film's Memphis premiere (4 min.), and six promo spots with a "play all" feature. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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