Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. ForMusic in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
Hollywood’s attempts to cash in on the success of musicians by producing movie vehicles for them can lead to intriguing results. Only last week did we explore Glitter, the nightmarish result of what happened when Mariah Carey opted to play movie star.
Then there have been those movies where musicians try to be actors, opting to star in projects that aren’t necessarily extensions of their musical persona but are instead films that they have pursued to highlight that they can be good actors as well. This has also frequently ended up with mixed results. Madonna’s first major movie starring role was in Desperately Seeking Susan, a hugely enjoyable eighties comedy that paired her up with Roseanna Arquette, but subsequent follow-ups such as Shanghai Surprise and Body of Evidence were disasters and best avoided at all costs.
Then there was David Bowie, who sometimes found himself at the mercy of disdainful critics who didn’t rate him highly as a film actor, but was actually incredible in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, a hypnotic slice of 70s sci-fi that played more into the enigmatic and elusive nature of Bowie’s persona more than a hollowed-out attempt at producing a pop movie ever could.
When Eminem arrived in the late nineties, he made a mark right away with his controversial lyrics and persona. The history of ‘white rap’ is not a good one, with the most ‘memorable’ example of the genre being Vanilla Ice, who also attempted a movie career with Cool as Ice, and the less said about that film the better. Vanilla Ice was credited with bringing hip-hop to the mainstream (i.e. a white audience), and it’s the racial component that sometimes makes one want to take pause on the artistic success of 8 Mile.
Eminem was as far from Vanilla Ice as it was possible to get when it came to a white male becoming a rap star. Maybe one doesn’t want to take too long comparing the two, but where Vanilla Ice got famous for ‘Ice, Ice, Baby’ which sampled parts of Queen and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’, Eminem arrived at the turn of the century with a darker persona, poetic lyrics of a confrontational nature and, in the case of ‘Stan’ (a song which helped make a star of Dido), the ability to craft music with a brilliant turn of narrative.
It made the announcement of a film starring the rapper something of an intriguing concept. It might have been easy to instantly dredge up the memory of Cool as Ice (shudder), but the entire fabric of Eminem’s edgier character and lower-class upbringing meant that something as hollow and empty as the Vanilla Ice movie was the last thing that was going to be produced.
The announcement of Curtis Hanson as director indicated right away that this was not going to be a cheap cash-in on the sudden fame of a musician. Hanson was one of Hollywood’s most interesting directors, someone who had a knack for directing great mainstream projects and doing them incredibly well. When he directed 8 Mile, he had experienced great critical acclaim and a plethora of award nominations for the James Elroy adaptation LA Confidential, one of the very best films of the 90s and which many to this day still think was undeservedly robbed of Best Picture at the Academy Awards by James Cameron’s Titanic.
Up until then, he was famous for a plethora of interesting character-driven thrillers such as Bad Influence, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild and the underrated comedy-drama Wonder Boys. The combination of Hanson and Eminem meant that 8 Mile was not going to be an empty-headed sort of film, and the resulting product was very much one of gritty substance. Filmed in a naturalistic style by Hanson and with believable performances from its entire cast, the whole vibe and atmosphere of 8 Mile were as far as possible to get from the likes of Glitter and Purple Rain. The latter might have had dramatic grit to the story, but it was filmed like an MTV music video and everything about 8 Mile is the antithesis of that.
Better yet, while Scott Silver’s screenplay is structured as a story that allows Eminem’s story to achieve a sense of victory and validation come the end of the third act, it’s not one that emptily revels in how great his talent is. His character of Rabbit, whose story in the film is part-biographical, must contend with self-doubt, anxiety about performing, not to mention a difficult home life. The film is somewhat unflinching in its portrayal of a lower-class community, not to mention the horrors of violence, both societal and domestic.
Released a year after the vacuousness of Glitter, it puts the Mariah Carey film into sharp focus as the piece of irrelevancy that it is, and it’s not a surprise that critics and audiences warmly received 8 Mile. It’s the type of film, in general, that doesn’t get made anymore, and while Eminem had a large younger fanbase, the film is not one pandering to children in any way, and better yet, while Rabbit achieves a sense of victory in the film’s climax, it doesn’t lead to him becoming a huge international star or musician. He makes peace with achieving victory and then heads back to his job at the car manufacturing plant. It’s enough for him and the audience to know he can do it.
There are issues here, and it comes down to the matter of race. This is a very entertaining film, and while Hanson’s direction captures the gritty air of realism and with non-fussy but elegant direction, Silver’s screenplay is structured like a sports film, where the sport isn’t boxing, football or baseball, but rap battles. It’s a world where a turn of phrase and the ability to get a dig into the opponent’s character is the way to score a point.
It gives the story a considerable drive and sense of odds when it comes to the film’s climax, but it also means that watching it twenty years after its release, one must question what the film is presenting. Rap is an African-American created genre of music, and yet the film is presenting Eminem as essentially the ‘poor white boy’ who must rise up against the higher standing of the African-American community he is surrounded by in order to beat them at their creation.
The film presents the majority of its black characters as obstacles in Rabbit’s way, mostly through the Free World Crew as represented by Anthony Mackie’s Papa Doc, not to mention Eugene Byrd as Wink, a potential rival to the affection of Brittany Murphy’s Alex. Not all African-Americans are antagonists of the film; Mekhi Phifer’s character of Future is a confidant and loyal friend to Rabbit throughout the film, and even when the two are at loggerheads for a brief spell towards the end, Future doesn’t hold a grudge and is incredibly supportive of Rabbit’s talent.
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Rap and Hip-Hop was something that was fostered and created by an African-American community who used the genre to potently express their dissatisfaction at a world that was racially and socially unbalanced and frequently programmed against them, and yet 8 Mile gives one pause for thought today when it’s presenting a story in which we are asked to cheer on a white person who needs to prove they are better at performing the very thing the African-American community have created.
It’s a very fine film for sure, well made, brilliantly produced and directed, with a superb lead performance from Eminem. None of that is in dispute. However, it’s a piece of art that feels inelegant if one reads more deeply into it, naïve about the story it’s presenting and which never really asks too much, or even tries to, about the genre of music other than how it’s impacting its white lead character.