Despite its hip-hop music and desolate, desperate urban jungle setting, 8 Mile (2002) is surprisingly - though entertainingly - old-fashioned. Its story, structure, and characters are a lot like those found in musical biopics of the late-1940s and throughout the '50s, when the genre was at its peak. Those familiar with those older films - The Fabulous Dorseys, The Five Pennies, Jolson Sings Again, etc. - may find themselves thinking, "Oh, that's the Jack Carson character," or "He functions like Harry Morgan in The Glenn Miller Story." Directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), 8 Mile's main assets are its appealing central character and good, semi-autobiographical performance in that role by rap star Eminem, and the stylized but accurately bleak depiction of the wastelands and nightclubs of Detroit, this reviewer's old stomping grounds.
Set around 1995, Jimmy Smith, Jr. (Eminem), using the stage name "B-Rabbit" (adapted from a childhood nickname) appears at a rap battle at a Downtown Detroit nightclub MC'd by closest friend "Future" (ER's Mekhi Phifer). It's an intimidating experience; except for Rabbit's decidedly un-hip pal Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones), he's virtually the only white boy in a claustrophobic sea of black faces - an audience averse to anything remotely resembling Vanilla Ice. Rabbit chokes on-stage, in front of everyone, though Future still believes there's musical genius in Rabbit on the verge of breaking out.
Meanwhile, Rabbit is forced to move back in with his alcoholic, foul-mouthed but needy mother, Stephanie (Kim Basinger), and his baby sister whom Stephanie neglects, Lily (Chloe Greenfield, herself later on ER). They live in a crummy trailer park off of 8 Mile Road, Detroit's northern border. The situation at home is tense and always unpleasant; Rabbit disapproves of his mother's relationship with abusive live-in boyfriend Greg (Michael Shannon), who sponges off the family while awaiting a big workers comp settlement.
Rabbit himself goes to work at a pressing plant that manufactures automobile bumpers. Torn between trying to raise money for studio time and helping his hopeless mother out of another jam, Rabbit is barely hanging on. He and his friends cruise Grand River Avenue shooting paintballs and fantasizing about being the Next Big Thing in hip-hop ("We need to get fine bitches and phat rides!") but do little to make it happen. It's an empty, dead-end existence.
Mainly, 8 Mile finds Jimmy/Rabbit at the crossroads; he realizes his family situation likely will never improve and quite possibly get much worse. His friends, likeable though they may be, are losers. Even Future, whom Rabbit has always admired, has already reached the pinnacle of his life as a minor local celebrity hosting those weekend rap competitions.
For his part, Jimmy is talented and perhaps ambitious but also terribly introverted - in large groups he hides himself in sweat clothes, cap and a floppy hood, hoping to go unnoticed - but the anger about the direction his life is taking, while repressed, ultimately proves more powerful than his fears about performing.
Eminem is surprisingly good. Partly one suspects this is because of the screenplay's many parallels to the hip-hopper's own tumultuous early life, and partly because the character's introverted nature required less overt expressiveness.
Conversely, the film's one major fault is Kim Basinger, who while fine in other films (including Hanson's L.A. Confidential) tries but is not believable as Rabbit's unhappy mother - to the point where she becomes a major distraction taking away from the immediacy and verisimilitude of the atmosphere.
Having grown up in one of Detroit's lower-middle class suburbs - if anyone ever wants to film my life story they could call it 5 Mile; I was raised three miles south (hence, Five Mile Road) and about 10 miles west of Rabbit's trailer park - I can vouch for its authentic depiction of an urban landscape of garbage-filled vacant lots, and burnt-out crack houses. DP Rodrigo Prieto gives the nightlife a greenish, stylized glow reminiscent of film noir, but never to the point where it becomes artificial. I was delighted to see the late, lamented Chin Tiki used as a location, and especially Detroit's former Michigan Theater, once a premiere movie palace bizarrely converted into an indoor parking lot (with much of the interior plaster skeleton of the auditorium left intact) also used prominently. I wrote about this site in my book Motor City Marquees. There's a bit of an overuse of hand-held camerawork in tight medium shots and close-ups, perhaps a deliberate device to maintain that claustrophobic feel of the nightclub scenes.
This reviewer is not at all a fan of hip-hop music, but 8 Mile makes a good case for it as a legitimate art form, at its best an ironic, bitter, and sometimes very funny poetry of the ghetto. I found myself switching on the subtitles so that I could read the raps as they were being performed, and while I'm still not exactly a convert, the film gave me a new appreciation of the form, exemplifying its appeal to non-fans.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Super 35 for 2.35:1 projection, 8 Mile is handsomely presented on Blu-ray in its original theatrical aspect ratio in a 1080p/BD-25 transfer. The image is strong, up to contemporary standards, with the many nighttime scenes holding up particularly well. A Universal title, this comes equipped with their "My Scenes" option; as a plasma owner, I'm particularly grateful for this feature as I can pause the image, walk away and within a few minutes Universal's screen-saver kicks in thus preventing burning an image on my monitor. (Why don't all Blu-ray discs include this?)
Not surprisingly, the audio is well above average, with the pitched rap duels and the roar of the crowds coming off particularly strong. Included is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, and DTS 5.1 mixes in French and Spanish, with subtitles in all three languages.
All the supplements are in standard-def 480i and culled from a March 2003 DVD. They include The Making of '8 Mile' (in 4:3 format) and two "uncensored" featurettes, the fairly interesting Exclusive Rap Battles and 'Superman' Music Video. Even the standard DVD had more than this, including a trailer and production notes. I was hoping for a Curtis Hanson commentary, but no dice.
8 Mile has a kind of unexpected universal appeal not limited to fans of Eminem or those already interested in hip-hop. It's a well-made, almost classically told musical drama/biopic, and while its Extra Features are disappointing, the movie and the transfer are Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.