While Skinny Black (Ludacris) enjoys life as a platinum-selling artist, his former rap peer DJay (Howard) works the Memphis streets as a small-time pimp. But a chance meeting with old friend Key (Anderson), coupled with the news that Skinny is coming to town, convinces DJay that he might have one last shot at the big time…
Hustle & Flow flaunts all the features of an unwashed indie wannabe. It has a novice filmmaker at the helm, an anti-hero protagonist at the centre and is coloured by just enough chauvinism to create a whiff of controversy. The obligatory Sundance award completes the look. And yet, what appears to be a rap Requiem For A Dream actually plays like a pimp Pretty Woman — a feelgood fairy tale with a big musical heart. In another life, Hustle & Flow might even have taken flight as a vehicle for that most dubious of double threats — Hilary Duff.
The effect is so striking it can only be deliberate. Writer-director Craig Brewer opens with Terrence Howard’s charismatic DJay in soliloquy, outlining his brand of sexist Darwinism to jailbait rainmaker Nola (Taryn Manning), but the subsequent mean-street scenes lack the necessary mean streak to convince you that DJay can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. For all his bravado, DJay is a big pussycat, sheltering pregnant prostitute Shug (Taraji Henson) long after she stopped bringing home the green.
But as soon as Howard steps up to the mic, the movie crackles to life. Any drama that places the creative act under scrutiny must have confidence in its material, and Brewer is sitting on platinum. It matters not if you enter the theatre thinking “crunk” — the peculiar flavour of Southern hip-hop cooked up here — must be a misprint; to watch these rousing anthems take shape is genuinely thrilling.
Where Eminem picked his way through the dramatic moments in 8 Mile before exploding on stage, the adventure here is to watch Howard, a rap novice, grow in stature until he’s spitting out flows like
a pro. The 33 year-old former supporting player seizes his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, turning in a performance that manages to be cocksure one moment, vulnerable the next. DJay’s nice-guy makeover borders on the trite, but so effective are the musical passages that Howard heads off to the climactic showdown with Skinny Black carrying the hopes of the entire audience along with his demo tape. The long-awaited tête-à-tête doesn’t disappoint either, a nail-biting set-piece that leaves DJay’s fate in the balance right through a coda that is far too tidy, but still enormously satisfying.
If Disney ever staged a musical version of Taxi Driver, it might crib notes from Hustle & Flow. It may not convince on every level, but this hip-hop hopeful deserves any breaks coming its way..