Save for some decent darkly-urban cinematography by Hubert Taczanowski and a brief appearance by singer Faith Evans, Turn It Up is a bit of a stiff. Its hackneyed story concerns an aspiring hiphop artist whose attempts to cut a record and get out the hood are blocked by white thugs and his best friend’s mistakes. You know, it’s the kind of movie that gets you thinking about your grocery list or what you’re missing on TV while you’re watching it.
In this case, my mind wandered to the trailers that preceded the film, what they might be saying about how someone imagined Turn It Up would play, and to whom. First comes Billy Elliot, a movie about a little English boy who wants to dance ballet instead of box, much to the horror of his working class father. Number two, The Legend of Bagger Vance, wherein Will Smith is a magical caddie who teaches Matt Damon to play golf and win the white girl’s heart. Next, Ladies’ Man, where Saturday Night Live‘s long-suffering Tim Meadows gets a chance at last to stretch his very own three-minute skit into an hour and a half. And finally, Bamboozled, Spike Lee’s high profile return to fiction-filmmaking, a comedic critique of television’s ongoing minstrel show, starring Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, and Jada Pinkett-Smith.
Imagine these trailers form a prism through which to make sense of the movie they precede. So, for instance, you might observe that, like the heartwarming English film, Turn It Up is a “universal” story about growing up, in which a young man (not precisely a boy, but often immature) fights social and economic odds to pursue his rap-star dream. Brooklyn-born Diamond (third Fugee Pras, best known for “Ghetto Superstar,” which hit-singled off the Bulworth soundtrack) is midway through cutting a record, which, the movie wants you to think, is off the proverbial hook. With an ailing mother and absent dad (this would be the other Billy Elliot connection, father-issues), D has a few cliched chips on his shoulders, while seeking respect from his thuggish homeboys, as well as thuggish record industry suits (one label exec is called, ominously, Mr. White). Sadly, and no matter how you may judge his rhymes, D’s not very imaginative when it comes to expressing himself. Too often, he’s reduced to fending off the bad guys by saying, “Don’t fuck with my music!”
Of course, some folks do just that. The first is D’s no-count daddy Cliff (Vondie Curtis-Hall), who shows up for D’s mother’s funeral (the word “contrived” doesn’t begin to cover this plotting, and much of it is ripped off from Purple Rain, to boot). Cliff is a jazz pianist who left the wife and shorty in order to pursue his gigging dreams, then lapsed into alcoholism or whatever. His return (“I’m sorry I messed up”) coincides with D’s creative crisis, and luckily, dad’s versed in slick studio production, such that his insta-input improves the kid’s record exponentially, or at least makes it sound more all right than the flat rhymes he’d been running just a few minutes before (his crackhead engineer [Chris Messina] is definitely not feeling it). Soon enough, father and son are in the sound booth, nodding to the new-better beats, happy as hiphopping clams.
All this studio time doesn’t come free (even if the owner does believe, as he tells D, “You’ve got the goods”). And so, D’s magic instigator and helper his sorta Bagger Vance is his longtime friend/financier/manager Gage (the energetic Ja Rule), who also happens to be a drug-runner for some slimy white British fellow named Mr. B (Jason Statham). Though Mr. B tries to entice D to work for him, the kid’s not having it (something about scruples). Still, he’s willing to go on runs with his friend. Gage is really a good kid (“Do you really believe I enjoy pushin weight?”) and takes dutiful note of D’s hypocrisy, in that he takes Gage’s money to pay for his crib and studio time. But the guys are more bad than good for one another, their dog loyalty eventually making both of them vulnerable to Mr. B’s excesses. One example will suffice: Mr. B learns that Gage has stolen money from another dealer, which in some long run belongs to Mr. B., and so he tortures him in the most retarded way, straight out of Movie Villainy 101: he asks Gage if he wants some “roast beef,” hauls out a meat slicer he has handy, then holds Gage’s face against it shiny slicer-wheel a-whirring until the kid gives up the required information. This takes about half a second.
As indicated by this scene, Gage primarily serves as a foil to D. Where the eminently intimidate-able Gage is excitable and flashy, D is seething and earnest. But, the charismatic Ja Rule turns Gage into more than the usual sidekick: he’s more resolute, funny, and energetic, and if not precisely Will-Smithlike, he’s actually more appealing than Pras, who runs low on the affect scale. For instance, at the necessary moment when D performs at a local club, all dressed up in a slick white suit, his boy Gage steps up for one verse and basically blows him off the stage. But D reasserts himself when, during a shootout with a group of “Asians,” he’s suddenly revealed as the two-guns equal of Chow Yun Fat (this ludicrous expertise is never explained). They have each other’s backs, I suppose, but D’s supposed sway is not very convincing.
In an apparent effort to bolster his role as hero, the movie makes D, like Tim Meadows, a “Ladies Man” who goes straight. Sort of. While it’s clear that, if he wanted, D could outperform Gage as a player (Gage has scantily-outfitted women hanging round him at the clubs), he has a steady girl, Kia (Tamala Jones), who will eventually convince her man that he needs to set his priorities. She does this in two ways: at first, she disses him: “When I first met you,” she says when he’s late for a date, “you were so fine, you were mad cool.” But now he’s not living up to whatever potential she saw in him and, more specifically, is spending too much time with his boy Gage, “running around like Batman and Robin” (a description that suggests she may know something about their relationship that even they don’t know). And later, after a sufficient number of professional mini-crises have beset D, she informs him that she’s pregnant, and insists that he make a choice, be a man, do the right thing, and [insert your favorite cliche here].
At this point, it’s surely obvious that Turn It Up is running most every ghetto stereotype available, from the sainted dead mama and long-gone-then-redeemed dad to the ambitious son, pregnant girlfriend, and doomed sidekick (this string of characters goes to the Bamboozled premise, in case you’re counting). A lot of movies are predictable, of course, but this one seems inordinately determined to squash its characters (and performers) flat with its lack of imagination. I can recall the PR fanfare a couple of years ago, when Pras announced he was going to make the “Ghetto Superstar” idea into a movie (Ghetto Superstar was Turn It Up‘s working title), including the buzz that Guy Oseary, of Madonna’s Maverick Records was producing. It’s hard to say exactly what went wrong, or how responsible you might hold first-timewriter-director Robert Adetuyi, or how much of what’s ended up on screen had to do with Pras or other more and less experienced movie-folks who had “concepts” about what corny plot devices a movie about “rap” or “the ghetto” should include in order to appeal to the widest possible demographic, or perhaps appeal to the various audiences targeted by four not-very-well-connected trailers. The result is a discombulated generic hybrid, with precious little in it to interest anyone.