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8 MILE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Eminem, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer, Kim Basinger
Director:  Curtis Hanson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  111 Minutes
Release Date:  March 18, 2003

“If something’s gonna happen…it needs to happen NOW.”

Film ***1/2

8 Mile is named after the Detroit boundary that separates the city from the suburbs, and almost literally, the black world and the white world.  It’s appropriately titled, because it’s a film all about borders, the dreams of breaking through them, the dangers of crossing those lines, and the small but intense hope that you’ll be the one to make it where so many others fail.

It also is, of course, the Eminem movie.  Some of it is true to his own life story, and as he admits, some of it is not.  But life sometimes imitates art, and while in the movie his character Jimmy has to prove himself in a medium prejudiced against him, the once-and-future Marshall Mathers had to prove that a rap star…even a big one…could carry a major motion picture through to box office dollars and respectability.  And if Jimmy walked away at the end of the story with his head held high, so did Eminem.

I was reluctantly dragged to see this movie on opening day by a buddy.  I was not an  Eminem fan.  In fact, over the years, I had turned a tin ear toward rap and hip-hop in general, sticking to my guitar, my blues, and my rock and roll.  But there I was, in a darkened theatre, arms crossed, eyes narrowed, pretty much watching only to see Eminem make an ass of himself.

Instead, he made one of me.  In spite of my set-in-stone musical tastes and my rock-hard opinion already formulated against him, I found myself stirred by the story and his performance.  In fact, I still wonder to this day if I liked the picture better than my buddy did.  Admitting I was wrong took a little time…it was more than just eating my words, which, as a critic, I’ve done often enough to actually acquire a taste for them.  It was admitting something that would change my whole perception up to that point and the structured order of my musical life.  I had found respect for rap’s biggest star.  I felt even a small connection to him.  Hell…I LIKED him.

So, I’m a Johnny-come-lately fair-weather fan, I suppose.  I can live with that.  From what I’ve seen and read, I’m not the first film critic to see his opinion of Eminem do an about-face because of this movie.

I haven’t even mentioned yet that Curtis Hanson, the mastermind behind L. A. Confidential, took the reins of this movie in hand.  A proven master storyteller, he recognized in 8 Mile a story worth telling.  Between his drive and Eminem’s charisma, they crafted a film that has been compared to Purple Rain, but in all fairness, probably merits comparison to Rebel Without a Cause, Rocky, or even On the Waterfront.  Yes, frankly…it’s that good.

Em plays Jimmy Smith, known as Rabbit to his family and friends.  Like many young blue collar laborers in Detroit breaking their backs just to make ends meet, he dreams of rap stardom.  His best friend Future (Phifer) believes in his talent, but Rabbit doesn’t quite…on his first big chance in a freestyle rap battle, he gets so nervous that he throws up in the restroom, and then freezes on stage while a ruthless crowd taunts him.

Word travels quickly in the hip-hop community, and Rabbit is branded a choke artist and a loser.  He holds on to his dreams in the face of the cold reality of his life.  He gave his car to his former girlfriend when she claimed to be pregnant.  He struggles with a daily grind at a metal plant, trying to scrape together enough cash to make it on his own and hopefully record that elusive demo someday.  In the meantime, he lives at home in a trailer park with his emotionally scarred mother (Basinger) and kid sister, while enduring the taunting of her far-too-young lover.  A blossoming romance with a would-be model (Murphy) might be either a ray of hope for him, or just another complication.

In Detroit, there may be no East coast-West coast rivalry, but there are still battle lines drawn across 8 Mile.  Rappers mostly use words as their weapons, but there’s always that chance that tensions will lead to something worse.  In one of the film’s many memorable moments, Rabbit manages to calmly get his little sister in the house with the door locked behind her as he awaits the inevitable.

Hanson’s visual style recreates a bleak world for the screen, while Eminem’s music provides its heartbeat.  It gave me a bit of satisfaction to know that in real life, Em was discovered by rap star Dr. Dre while unleashing his words in a fury at a freestyle competition.  When Jimmy finds his world has him completely backed into a corner, he has no choice but to come out swinging.  The finale will have you on your feet.

8 Mile kind of leaves Jimmy with the door to his future open at last…nothing settled for sure, but a great sense of optimism abounding.  In life, Eminem took his act to the top of the charts.  The man can rap.  The pleasant surprise is that he can also act.  There’s hardly a frame of this film that doesn’t ride on his shoulders, and he doesn’t shirk.  True, to a certain extent, he’s playing a version himself, but I can’t knock him for that…Mariah Carey and Britney Spears each took a turn at playing versions of themselves, and ended up looking quite foolish.

I hope this isn’t the last we see of Em on the big screen.  Now that he’s proven he can handle a semi-autobiographical role with no false steps, I think he’s ready for his next shot.

Video ****

This is a superb anamorphic transfer from Universal…in fact, I’d dare say it looks even better on DVD than it did at the movies!  Hanson’s vision of Detroit is cool yet very alive…his frames are filled with detail, and this presentation captures it all beautifully…no compression evident, no softness, no loss of detail or visible grain even in the many darker scenes.  This movie is also available in a pan and scan version, but you should avoid it entirely.  You’ll never feel all of Jimmy’s pressure on stage with only half the audience to look at.

Audio ****

8 Mile teems with sounds and pulsates with music, and this digital surround track lets you feel it all, from the kick of the bass to the roars of the crowd, from the quietist bits of dialogue to the thunderous noise of the metal factory.  I give the edge to the DTS track for more lower frequency integrity and better spatial use of sound across both front and rear stages, but the Dolby Digital track is still superb enough to keep all of its stars…consider it an A for a perfect score and the DTS an A+ for extra effort.

Features **1/2

The features aren’t bad, but man, I would have liked more.  There’s a short production featurette that includes interview clips with Eminem and Hanson, which is enjoyable but not very in-depth.  A look at the freestyle battles that came about while filming the club scenes is an interesting look…some of the winners got to duke it out with Em on screen!  Rounding out is a trailer, talent files, production notes, a look at both soundtrack CDs for the movie, and the “Superman” music video.  I got the uncensored features version, so be warned…though the movie has no nudity, this video certainly does!

Summary:

8 Mile is more than another music star trying to prove he can act.  Much more.  This is a gritty, inspiring look into a world many of us have never seen…a solid story well told and with a powerful, eye-opening performance by Eminem.  You don’t have to like his music or rap in general to feel the full effect of this movie…in fact, I’m living proof.