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But can he act?

Eminem goes to Hollywood in '8 Mile,' by way of the hard-knock streets of Detroit. It's a tale of how the worlds of rap and film accepted each other on their own terms.

October 13, 2002|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

They ushered the Detroit kid into the Hollywood chamber of power and sat him down on a crimson couch beneath perfectly framed photographs of grinning movie stars. They told him he, too, could be a star and waited for him to be giddy or nervous or even visibly interested. Instead, the kid shrugged and said, "Yeah, OK."

That was in January 2000, when Eminem was a music sensation but not yet assured the twin titles of world's top rapper and American pop culture's most incendiary young artist. His music and videos were theatrical, but there was really no reason to believe he could carry a movie. And it was arguably ludicrous to assume he could shoulder a gritty drama written, directed and filmed by people with exactly zero background in the rap world. Somehow, though, that is exactly what happened.

The bold result, a film called "8 Mile," should make Eminem a cultural force of newfound potency and, just maybe, put him in a place where he won't have to explain himself anymore.

"8 Mile," which opens Nov. 8, has in Eminem a star who has been a cannonball in the pool of pop music, hailed by some as a Lenny Bruce of street music and reviled by others as just another rusty nail on the cultural landscape. It also has 57-year-old director Curtis Hanson, who was praised for the confident craft of "L.A. Confidential" and "Wonder Boys" but came to "8 Mile" with a creeping worry that he might be a clumsy tourist in rap. Its screenwriter, meanwhile, is the man who co-wrote and directed the 1999 film "The Mod Squad," a failure so bruising that, when asked what in "8 Mile" most reflects his voice, he cited the scene where the main character vomits backstage because he is so afraid of his audience.

The trajectory of the "8 Mile" project was set by the fame of Eminem, which could have sent the movie in one of two directions -- either a commercial-minded farce with a hit soundtrack or a film that uses its built-in allure to take some chances. The course it took, which started two years ago in the office of producer Brian Grazer, is clearly the latter, and that makes "8 Mile" the most intriguing music-star film in years.

"I remember he was sitting here and he would not look at me, he would only look straight ahead," recalls Grazer, whose movie, "A Beautiful Mind," won the Oscar for best picture of 2001. "When you bring people in, at least they usually look at you or at least eventually talk. He just didn't."

Grazer had set the meeting after catching a glimpse of Eminem on an MTV awards show. The producer had for years been meeting rappers, from Slick Rick to Tone Loc, looking for a star for a "meaningful" hip-hop film, the one who could do for hip-hop youth what "Blackboard Jungle" had done for rock 'n' roll kids and "Saturday Night Fever" for disco kids.

Why did Grazer think the unblinking white kid on his couch was the one? Especially considering Eminem has been excoriated for lyrics of venom, homophobia, violence and lewdness? "I never had any doubt," Grazer says. "Just seeing him on TV for six seconds I knew he could act. And then when he came here and I was with him, I couldn't keep my eyes off him.... And this movie is going to change the way a lot of people look at him."

The success of the film awaits the critics and box office, but screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival and a Puerto Rico convention of hip-hop DJs have created positive buzz. If it does succeed, "8 Mile" will be an unlikely bridge between Hollywood and Detroit that also illuminates on film how issues of race are bending to the backbeat of hip-hop.

Not quite a biography

"8Mile" is not the life story of its star, but it flirts so closely with the path of young Marshall Bruce Mathers III to his stardom as Eminem that the movie feels like a rap remix -- tweaked but with the same beats. The movie follows one week in the life of Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith who, at the start of the film, is forced to move into a trailer with his boozy mother. The film's title is the roadway that separates that trailer in the poor, white rural community from the poor, urban black areas where Rabbit finds the comfort of hip-hop culture. Rabbit is an outsider on both sides of 8 Mile.

For Hanson, the film is as much about geography as biography, a map of Detroit's despairs. The director spent time in the city in the 1980s researching a project on child drug dealers and, when he saw the "8 Mile" script written by Scott Silver, he remembered how young Detroiters seemed like kids at play in a condemned factory.

A number of top directors vied for "8 Mile," but Grazer says he tapped Hanson because he "is an American director who can tell an American story, and that's what this is." Hanson was blunt, though, when he went to Detroit to meet Eminem: He would sign on if the star committed to a serious youth film, a "Rebel Without a Cause," not a two-hour music video.

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