Tip-top hip-hop rom-com non-bomb.
Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) is a music journalist who starts every interview with a simple question, 'When did you fall in love with hip-hop?'. For her, it's was first hearing freestyle battles on a street corner, where she also met her best friend Dre (Taye Diggs). Twenty years later both still share the love of the music, and have grown up just as hip-hop has. Dre works as an executive for a major record label. Sidney is just moving to a new job as editor for a respected hip-hop magazine.
Music plays a huge part in both their lives do it's no surprise that the story is as much about the tunes as it is the characters. Director Rick Famuyiwa sets out his stall from the jump-off, with excerpts from interviews with scene luminaries like Slick Rick and De La Soul driving home the point that to these people hip-hop isn't just part of their life, it is their life. This will eventually turn out be the film's greatest aspect, but for some I can see it being a near-fatal flaw. The characters share an almost obsessive love of music, and it's exactly the kind of disorder I can relate to. There are some strange, well-balanced people out there that don't seem to have anything that can so completely override sense and logic and be habit forming, and if they can't translate this feeling into something they're familiar with much of this movie will seem baffling.
The actual plot of the romance isn't exactly startlingly original as much as it is more realistic than the reality-divorced drivel that the likes of Sweet Home Alabama serves up. Sidney returns after a long stint away to find Dre on the verge of proposing marriage to upwardly mobile lawyer Reese (Nicole Ari Parker). This comes as a surprise to her although it's more obvious to the audience than it is the characters themselves that this was never meant to be. Sidney and Dre continue with the delusion that they are just good friends as Reese and Dre's relationship goes from great to good to rocky. Crisis point is reached once Dre eventually quits in disgust over the labels hiring of Ren and Ten, the self styled hip-hop Dalmatians (One of them is white, the other black, you see) and their particularly laughable update of the McCartney / Jackson duet, no entitled 'The Ho Is Mine'.
Dre decides to start up his own label. Sidney is supportive of his wishes to return to the music that inspires him rather than the tripe that was paying the bills. Reese is rather miffed that he's taken such a big step without talking to her first, and more so on realising that Sidney knew about it before she did. In tales like this Reese's character should be manipulative, bitchy and an abject horror so all us drones in the cinema can cheer when she gets her comeuppance. Someone seems to have left director / writer Famuyiwa out of this particular loop, or perhaps he's just crediting us with a little more intelligence. Reese is nearly as sympathetic as the main characters and has equally valid points of view. Nonetheless, as Dre spends more and more time on label business with new recruit and ex-taxi driver Chris (Mos Def), Reese grows apart from Dre. The way Famuyiwa reveals this us make it difficult to immediately pour blame on Reese when it's eventually revealed that she's having an affair as by that point Dre is barely a part of her life.
I think that it's elements like this that has led to a lukewarm reception in the States and seemingly over here too. I'm not going to claim that it's the very essence of realism, but it's far more so than the standard issue tales are. For example, after Dre finds out about her affair, he demands a divorce. Fair enough. In every other film this is a cue for Reese to vanish from the narrative forever to focus on the Sidney / Dre relationship. Here Reese contacts Dre again some time later, asking for a reconciliation, saying that they never tried to make it work. The effort was in vain, of course, but it makes the rest of the story a touch more believable.
While this saga is unfolding Sidney moves on with her own life, and starts dating notable (and thus loaded) basketball player Kelby (Boris Kodjoe). History threatens to repeat itself as Kelby proposes to Sidney, with Dre being supportive of the decision despite now realising the true depths of his feelings for Sidney just as Sidney did and then suppressed on news of Dre's marriage. Again, Kelby is an entirely sympathetic, real character. In this film, just as in life, nice people get hurt. Not everyone gets the happy ending.
A convincing story and well-written characters aren't worth a lot if the acting can't back it up. This is thankfully not an issue. Taye Diggs put in another charismatic and energetic performance. Sanaa Lathan is superb, giving a dignified performance allowing just the right amount of light and warmth to fall on her character to make us feel more sympathetic to her story than the colder Reese that Nicole Ari Parker plays. Both Parker and Kodjoe would have thankless roles in many other films of this ilk, but they are given far more humanity and depth than we've come to expect. It's certainly odd that we're asked to feel any kind o sympathy for the abandoned other halves of the main characters as the leads go off happily ever after. Even the romance sub-plots between Chris and Sidney's cousin Francine (Queen Latifya, charismatic as ever but not really given an awful lot to do) have a worthwhile pay-off to warrant their inclusion.
Sidney's vocation provides an interesting narrative technique, as through the film we hear voice overs of her work and from the novel's she's writing. Essentially it's comparing the changes occurring in the world of hip-hop over the years with the changes in her life, and also as a metaphor for her relationship with Dre. It works well, although some may find it to be overkill as it does tend to bludgeon home continually how important the music is to their lives. Still, Famuyiwa's passion for the music is evident in the fluid and expressive writing, and Lathan reads it with the same respect you imagine Famuyiwa would.
The film's referencing of Casablanca is a ballsy move, but one that's justified on more than one level. As Mos Def points out, Taye is positioning himself as Bogart to Bergman, watching her fly off into the sunset then walking away into the fog with some dude. And Mos Def makes it clear that he ain't going to be the dude in that relationship, despite his sidekick status. While the scene is almost surreal, threatening to break down the fourth wall and take you outside of the film's world it's handled with just the right delicacy to remain believable. This is in no small part helped by Mos Def and Taye Diggs looking for all the world like best mates. They seem so comfortable talking with each other that they could almost have had me believing that they were improvising. Whenever I hear of a rapper getting involved in a film I start preparing for the worst but Mos Def is used to perfection in the movie. Like he says, he's the sidekick, the Peter Lorre or Claude Rains, the comic relief. Thankfully he's very funny, and his delivery is better than you may expect. He's a minor character but it's nice to see even he has proper motivations for his actions and gets as happy an ending as the leads do.
The only thing that worries me about the film is that (certainly in America) it was marketed almost as a gritty urban drama with even more emphasis on the music than the romance element. This may lead to people being psyched for something that they won't get. In the current climate hip-hop is almost entirely synonymous with the hard edged Gangsta stuff, all guns and drivebys and crack and ho's. Nowt wrong with that, but it has little to do with the decidedly non-violent acts on screen. Still, if you can't appreciate the warmth of this movie you can't have an ounce of humanity in your soul.
I had to stop and think for a moment before slapping my final judgements on it, as I couldn't shake the feeling that if this was a tale of middle class white America intertwined with, say country music I might not have been so initially receptive to it. On the other hand, I'd like to think if it had the quality of acting, the depth of character and the pure sympathetic treatment shown here then I'd recognise it's quality. It's a testament to it's quality that even given my inclination for finding niggly faults with everything that I had no complaints at all on leaving the cinema. It's the best example of the genre I've seen in a good long while, and one of the best films I've seen in a good long while. I can't believe that every other critic is wrong about this film, but this is a movie that just clicked with me, spoke to me on a personal level, made some kind of connection which elevated it somehow. Second opinions from our own Rhythmwiz would knock this down a mark, but it's my review and I'll cry if I want to.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 5/5 TippyMarks.
Sanaa Lathan (Sidney)
Mos Def (Chris)
Nicole Ari Parker (Reese)
Boris Kodjoe (Kelby)
Queen Latifah (Francine)
Erik Weiner (Ren)
Reggi Wyns (Ten)