If I were to describe the premise for Hustle and Flow to you there's no way in the world you'd think "Wow, that's an amazing movie." I've lost track of the number of films that tell the story of a down-on-his-luck wanna-be rapper who thinks that if he gets his 'one shot' all will improve. While 8-mile may not have been a masterpiece it did seem to provide some sort of crescendo to this particular style of film. Just when you think the genre has jumped the shark, that this story simply couldn't be told any better or any fresher, in comes Hustle and Flow and turns everything upside down.
Focusing on the life and times of hustler 'D Jay', Hustle and Flow meanders through the rougher side of Memphis into the world of backseat hookers, seedy strip clubs, and mini mart drug deals. This isn't a pretty world, but writer/director Craig Brewer doesn't go out of his way to show how ugly or how hard it is. As with many things in the film, things just are, and Brewer gives the audience credit for recognizing that life on the streets isn't wine and roses. This sense of reality permeates the entire film with scene after scene of dialogue that sounds like how people genuinely talk. While I can't speak to the black experience, I can say this is the first film in a long time that seemed to portray real black characters and not black caricatures. A prime example of this are the scenes between D Jay and Skinny Black (played by notable rapper Ludacris). In lesser hands these scenes would have been something closer to MTV Cribs than the complex and intertwining interplay we see on screen. The magic of Brewer's screenplay is how it seems to recede into the background, creating an environment where things feel more like they're happening now, on screen, rather than coming from a script.
The undeniable star of Hustle and Flow is Terrence Howard, who clearly understands that the way to turn D Jay from a good character to a phenomenal one is to always be one step on the side of underplaying it. Howard is consistently fantastic throughout the entire film and even does a great job singing the vocals to the raps in the film.
Howard is backed by a solid group of supporting actors and actresses including: Taryn Manning, who gives a dimensionality to her role as Nola, a poor white trash hooker in constant struggle with her worth and identity; Taraji P. Henson, who is superb as Sugar, a pregnant hooker whose hopes and dreams quietly parallel D Jay's; and, Anthony Anderson as Key, whose dreams of becoming a record producer were traded in for a much simpler and ultimately unfulfilling life. Anthony Anderson needs to get big kudos here for probably the biggest career makeover of an actor yet. Anderson often appears in throwaway films like Kangaroo Jack and See Spot Run, but and in Hustle and Flow he steps up and shows that he's got the chops to be in much, much better films. Also of note is Isaac Hayes who has a relatively small role, but does a lot with it.
There's no other way to put it - Hustle and Flow is simply an amazing film. Although it's telling a familiar story, it does so in a way which is so real, so present and so genuine it's almost impossible not to get swept up by it.
Video: Hustle and Flow was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35. I've never seen 16mm look so good. The film has deep rich colors and sharp tones. It looks beautiful. The DVD features English subs.
Audio: Hustle and Flow is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and sounds fantastic. Audio is crisp and clear and there's good separation between the dialog and music. There's also a Dolby Digital 2.0 option.
Hustle and Flow is a fairly packed DVD. I'm quite pleased to see that Paramount gave this excellent film the DVD it deserves.
Memphis Hometown Premiere - Footage from the films premiere in Memphis with sound bites from key members of the cast from the red carpet. There are some nice moments with Craig Brewer who you can tell is really filled with emotion. Also there's a nice bit where the mayor of Memphis designates the day Craig Brewer/Hustle and Flow Day.
Creatin' Crunk (14 mins) - A look at the musicians who worked on Hustle and Flow (many of which worked with Isaac Hayes). This featurette talks about the evolution of the Memphis sound and how that was integrated into the films soundtrack. One of the nice things about this featurette is the fact that there is very little footage from the film. Instead we get a really nice side story about a Memphis rapper named Al Kapone and how his story paralled DJ's. There's also a peek at the evolution of the song "Whoop That Trick"
Promotional Spots (6 Spots) - I'm usually not a big fan of watching promotional spots for films. Often they are simply variants on the trailer or short TV spots. On this disc we get 6 promotional spots, several of which contain unique footage shot for the promos. It's a real treat.
By Any Means Necessary (14 mins) - A pretty comprehensive look at the genesis of Hustle and Flow, how they made the film no one wanted to finance. Some nugget we learn from this feature include: the connection between DJ's story and Craig Brewers, the reactions to trying to sell the story of a black rapper written and directed by a 35 year old white guy, John Singleton and how he made the film a reality and the 2005 Sundance Film Festival experience. In all a really nice look at the film.
Behind The Hustle (27 min) - An excellent behind the scenes documentary that looks at each of the main characters and the background of each actor. This is as perfect a behind the scenes documentary as I've seen. You get just enough detail on each actor and character to really enhance the enjoyment of this film but not so much that it's boring.
Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Craig Brewer - I am not a huge fan of audio commentaries, they are more often painful than enjoyable. I'm happy to report that this commentary is worth a listen. Brewer does a great job balancing back story of the film and actual insights into the production process. He's also quite up front about his influences and the films which directly impacted specific moments in the film. One of the biggest insights from the commentary is Brewers use of two cameras in many of the key dialog scenes and how that made the scenes more dynamic.
Final Thoughts: Hustle and Flow was one of my favorite films of 2005. While it deals with a familiar subject it does it in a way so honest and unique as to make it feel completely new again. More importantly the film has a number of moments which are simply magical. The spark of creativity and the connection between heart, passion and art have never been captured better on the screen. Paramount could have released the Hustle and Flow DVD with a few music videos and a quick behind the scenes and been done with it. But someone over there must really love this film and the DVD shows it. Hustle and Flow is a truly great film and a DVD which should definitely be part of your DVD collection.