Debuting writer-director Robert Adetuyi's "Turn It Up" casts a harsh light on the dark side of the hip-hop scene.
In this somber but vital drama, Pras (Prakazrel Michel, a founding member of the Fugees) plays Diamond, a Brooklynite with a craving for rap stardom so strong that he and his lifelong pal Gage (Ja Rule) have for some time been working as couriers for a Manhattan drug lord, Mr. B (Jason Statham), who also operates a luxe and trendy nightclub.
Diamond and Gage see this as the only way to make the demo that will skyrocket them out of the ghetto and Diamond to the top of the charts.
As Diamond becomes increasingly wary of being involved in drug trafficking, Gage becomes more and more convinced that they have no choice.
Diamond's girlfriend Kia (Tamala Jones) not only is none too happy with her lover's being involved in shady business but also has become unexpectedly pregnant and demands to know whether Diamond is prepared to accept the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood. When Diamond's ailing mother dies, his father (Vondie Curtis Hall), a gifted musician who tried drowning his professional disappointments in drink, unexpectedly turns up at his wife's funeral, 12 years after deserting her and his son. He strongly advises Diamond not to repeat his mistakes.
There are moments when "Turn It Up" could be more specific: Has Diamond any viable way of supporting himself, let alone a wife and child, outside crime? Is there in fact no way for him to launch a recording career without resorting to crime? And when all is said and done, we're left wondering just how successful that first recording is, considering the high toll in human lives exacted to get it made.
Even so, "Turn It Up," which benefits strongly from Hubert Taczanowksi's masterly, mood-setting cinematography, hits hard and pulls no punches in telling its brutal story.
Pras is poised and persuasive, but it is rapper Ja Rule, in his acting debut, who energizes the entire film as the doggedly loyal Gage, more realistic than Diamond yet in way over his head as well. Jones is properly feisty as the worried, plain-spoken Kia, and Hall is solid, as always.
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"Turn It Up" boasts strong musical selections and an effective score by Frank Fitzpatrick. It has action and violence, to be sure, but it may prove considerably more serious and uncompromising than its audience expected.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence and language and for some drug content. Times guidelines: The film's brutality is blunt, realistic rather than merely sensational or exploitative. The strong language is also realistic.
'Turn It Up'
Ja Rule: Gage
Vondie Curtis Hall: Cliff
Tamala Jones: Kia
A New Line Cinema presentation. Writer-director Robert Adetuyi. Based on a story by Ray (Cory) Daniels & Chris Hudson and Kelly Hilaire. Producers Guy Oseary, Happy Walters. Executive producers Gary Ventimiglia, Lennox Parris, Lester Parris. Cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski. Editor Jeff Freeman. Music Frank Fitzpatrick. Costumes Mimi Melgaard. Production designer Ina Mayhew. Art director Kei. Set decorator Jaro Dick. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In general release.