In 2002, Iovine teamed up with producer Brian Grazer on the Eminem film, "8 Mile." After 50 Cent arrived the next year, Iovine began looking for a film project that could utilize the tattooed rapper's tough-guy appeal. If "8 Mile" was a story about the creativity of hip-hop, "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " is about the life of hip-hop, a life that has a lot more in common with "GoodFellas" than "Good Vibrations."
"It's like looking at the mob through the eyes of 'The Godfather,' " says Iovine. "It shows you the struggles behind the life decisions people make, but in a very human way so you can understand the culture and where it comes from."
When Iovine was working on a project at HBO, an executive there introduced him to "Sopranos" writer Terence Winter. His script borrows from events in 50 Cent's life, softening the rapper's thuggish image with a light dusting of vulnerability. Instead of hiring a slick video director, the first person Iovine approached was Jim Sheridan, the Irish director known for such compelling dramas as "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father."
"I knew that as an Irishman, Jim really identified with 50's experience, of coming from a tough, very aggressive urban environment," explains Iovine. "He gets the whole ethnic family vibe. So does Terence, coming from 'The Sopranos.' These are matriarchal societies, whether it's the Italians or the blacks. Jim would always say to me in his Irish brogue, 'Jimmy, it's all about the mudda.' "
On the other hand, 50 Cent, who made his name dissing his rap rivals, is such an incendiary figure that the film has already been the subject of controversy in the African American community, which has long had an ambivalent relationship with its hip-hop icons, sometimes showing some love, other times disgust or disapproval. Protests have focused on the film's billboards, some of which portray 50 Cent with a gun in one hand, a microphone in the other.
Iovine argues that dozens of movie ads, from "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" to "The Bourne Supremacy," show their stars armed with guns. He also defends the film's graphic violence, saying it is no different from innumerable scenes in any number of critically beloved Martin Scorsese films.
"There's a double standard here," Iovine says. "50 Cent is a magnet because people in hip-hop get treated differently than people in movies. Depicting criminals in a movie doesn't make more criminals. The easy way out for the character 50 plays would be to be a criminal, but he takes the harder way out. The film shows that you can overcome anything in life if you have the guts to follow the truth."
I'm not sure the moral is quite that simple, but the movie does offer a different vision of 50 Cent, who has been easy to dismiss as a thuggish misogynist. Maybe it's the storytelling, maybe it's the medium, but in the film the rap star isn't the one-note insult artist he is on his CDs. His movie debut is certainly more self-assured than a certain action star whose willingness to slaughter hundreds of people on screen didn't stop him from reinventing himself as a crusading politician.
Iovine doesn't apologize for his artists' willingness to incite or offend -- in fact, he sees it as an integral ingredient in their appeal. This uncompromising attitude has its perils, but it puts Iovine more in touch with youth culture than most movie executives, who seem more eager to avoid risks, not court them. As he puts it: "Once the studios had this boom in marketing and production costs, they got rid of real entrepreneurs and brought in corporate managers, just like Time Warner did in the music business when they got rid of Mo Ostin, David Geffen and our company. When everyone starts worrying about Wall Street, it's always the content that is damaged."
If I were running a studio, I'd be recruiting outsiders like Iovine who have their ears to the ground. It wasn't so long ago that people laughed at the notion of a white rapper -- until Eminem came along. Whether it's music or film, Iovine knows the difference between what's authentic and what's ersatz.
When dessert comes at the end of lunch, he steers me away from a chocolate cookie that's fat-free, but flavor-free too.
"Don't even bother," he says. "It's a mouse trying to be a rat."