THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"8 MILE"

There's an old adage for people who want to become writers: "Write what you know." For musicians who want to become actors, an appropriate saying might be "act what you know." It's a strategy taken by rap superstar Eminem, who comes to the big screen in 8 Mile. Although not nearly as autobiographical as early word of mouth suggested, there are still plenty of similarities between Eminem's pre-stardom days and the life of Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith, the character he plays. The movie takes the rapper's own backstory and fictionalizes it into something else, capturing the spirit of the star rather than simply capitalizing off him.

Jimmy comes from the streets of Detroit. He works in a factory pressing metal. At night, he heads to the local hip-hop club where rappers engage in "battles" - contests of rhyme in which the winner is whomever unleashes the worst insults upon everybody else. Jimmy's life is as depressing as the decaying streets around which he lives. Aside from the dismal nature of his job, he has just broken up with his girlfriend. Left with nowhere to go, Jimmy is forced to return to the trailer park where his mother (Kim Basinger) and little sister live. He is shocked to find out his mother is dating one of his former school classmates.

Rapper Eminem makes his starring debut as Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith in director Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile
Inside, Jimmy yearns to perform rap music, eventually getting a record deal that will take him out of Detroit for good. He has the encouragement of his best friend Future (Mekhi Phifer) but the loss of a recent challenge due to intimidation could be a hindrance (Jimmy is usually the only white rapper in the competitions). Future tries to get Jimmy to keep working and to perform at the next challenge a week later. He considers it after meeting Alex (Brittany Murphy). She talks about how much she digs Jimmy and how she, too, has ambitions to leave Detroit behind. Alex talks of going to New York to model, but somehow you know she'll latch on to anyone whose coattails she could possibly ride, just in case her own thing doesn't take off. 8 Mile follows Jimmy for a week, as he deals with his mother, his new romantic interest, his buddies, and his rivals before finding the drive within himself to return to the stage, where he can prove himself once and for all.

Forget any preconceived notions you might have about Eminem. You don't have to like him to enjoy this movie. Personally, I've always had mixed feelings about the guy. His homophobic raps are inexcusable. I've also doubted his tough-guy persona. After all, this is the rapper who picks on fellow musicians N*Sync, Moby, and Christina Aguilera - a boy band, a Christian, and a girl. You never see him taking on someone who might fight back. On the other hand, I respond to the autobiography of his songs. The recent hit "Cleaning Out My Closet" is a brilliant confessional about his rocky relationship with his mother. 8 Mile works because it's not about Eminem; it's about a character who is similar in some ways, minus the lightning rods for controversy associated with the star.

The film was directed by Curtis Hanson, one of the few directors capable of vividly recreating a location or a culture on screen. As he did with 1950's Los Angeles in L.A. Confidential and the world of a boozy, washed-up academic in Wonder Boys, Hanson puts you in a time and a place so that you forget you're watching a movie. Here, he brings the underground hip-hop culture circa 1995 to life. You can almost smell the decay in these mean streets of Detroit. You can feel the pulse and the energy of the rap clubs. You can sense the desperation that fills so many lives. 8 Mile has an authentic feel that transcends the phenomenon of Eminem; this is a realistic story about a guy trying to use music to escape a dead-end life. It takes a special talent to make an audience feel like they're right there, and Hanson has that talent.

The most interesting thing about the movie - and what appealed most to me - is that Hanson and writer Scott Silver show the way rap music has put poverty just one wrung of the ladder below fame and fortune. Jimmy and his counterparts realize that these underground competitions lead to notoriety within the local hip-hop subculture, which in turn can lead to being discovered by record labels eager to find the next big thing. This is undoubtedly one of the most compelling things about rap music. A guy working in a factory can bust a few rhymes and suddenly be vaulted to stardom. Most of the best rappers came from the street, having nothing but a way with words that attracted attention. In fact, coming from a humble background is a staple of rap lyrics as well as its foundation. It is probably the only form of music that so openly welcomes newcomers, and many have lifted themselves out of dreary existences by capitalizing on such a policy. This is a feeling that's very alive in the film; Jimmy realizes that he's skimming around the surface of his dream. It is technically within his grasp. All he needs to do is find a way to break through.

Eminem probably understands a lot about Jimmy; his performance is incredibly heartfelt. Because of the anger contained within his songs, it's not hard to believe that he could nail one of the many dramatic confrontations in the film. What did surprise me is that Eminem nails the other scenes as well. He is, by turns, funny and sympathetic, hopeful and optimistic. It's a full-blooded performance that is filled with sincerity. Eminem could have cashed in with a hundred other roles, but he chose one that was clearly personal, and the result is memorable. I also liked Kim Basinger as Jimmy's mother. Like most of the characters, she dreams of better things as well. Basinger has a great scene in which she breaks down, blaming Jimmy for ruining her chance to better her own life. Despite Eminem's constant vitriol against his own mother, Basinger's performance is not one-note or derogatory. She plays a woman who, like her son, is trying to do her best under very oppressive circumstances.

8 Mile is full of drama, but it ends on a positive note as Jimmy returns to the stage to take on his rivals. The whole movie builds and builds, leading up to a place where Jimmy can proudly stand up for himself as he is. The final competition is a catharsis for him and for us; for whatever else his life might lack, Jimmy has guts and ambition - two things that may someday get him out of Detroit after all. You don't have to like Eminem or rap music in general to be inspired by that.

( 1/2 out of four)

8 Mile is rated R for strong language, sexuality, some violence and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.

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