Writer/director Craig Brewer's hip-hop drama 'Hustle & Flow' might well be called "the little movie that could." Seemingly plucked from obscurity to debut at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, the critically-praised film enjoyed a surprisingly strong theatrical run, and went on to earn a scad of award nods (including, most famously, an Oscar win for the Three 6 Mafia song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp").
The film itself focuses on a hard-working pimp named DJay (Terrence Howard), who finds himself in the midst of a mid-life crisis. As the city street corners become more and more dangerous, he can't help but feel that he was meant to do something greater in life. And so, with the help of his sound technician friend Key (Anthony Anderson), DJay begins to lay down rap tracks in the hopes of impressing a famous hip-hop artist coming to town named Skinny Black (Ludacris). Along the way, he'll also receive help from two hookers in his employ (Taraji P. Henson and Taryn Manning), and a mixer friend of Key's named Shelby (D.J. Qualls).
It may sound like the set-up for a comedy, but 'Hustle & Flow' is actually a dark drama about the struggles of poverty and inner city life in the south. Terrence Howard is downright revelatory in this role, evolving DJay from an exploitive thug to a guy with a dream, and in turn, a character the audience can genuinely root for. Never settling for the obvious choices, Howard instead presents a challenging performance that adds a several layers of humanity to a character that might otherwise be perceived as a monster.
The supporting cast is top notch as well -- Anderson follows up his appearances on the FX original series "The Shield" with another astounding performance that suggests he should never turn to cheap comedies again. Likewise, the often type-cast D.J. Qualls also proves he deserves better material.
But the real brilliance of the film lies in its ability to shatter expectations. Some viewers may hesitate to give 'Hustle & Flow' a try simply because of its thematic elements and investigation of hip-hop culture, but if they make the leap, they'll discover a character study that examines a wide range of social issues. I not only felt for DJay, I felt a genuine sympathy for anyone trapped by their environment and their upbringing. Equally as powerful, Brewer's lens drifts through the streets of Memphis, focusing on unexpected elements like residential housing conditions, the climate, and the clash of races.
In short, while it may not be to everyone's taste, 'Hustle & Flow' is an undeniably accomplished work. With excellent performances and a pulsing script, the film is both distinctive and taxing. Between this film and his follow-up, 'Black Snake Moan' (which is being released on high-def concurrent to this release), writer/director Craig Brewer has clearly established himself as one to watch -- I, for one, can't wait to see what else he's got in his brain.
'Hustle & Flow' is presented on HD DVD in 1080p using the VC-1 codec. Sadly, the video is the weakest part of this release -- a heavy hurricane of grain covers the image and the fine object detail is lacking. To be fair, the film was shot on 16mm so heavier grain is to be expected. However, the grain is so intrusive at times that it severely flattens the image, pulling background elements into the same field of view as the foreground. In high definition, the effect is jarring. Each dot of grain is sharper than any of the textures rendered on the screen and the entire picture lacks dimension and depth.
If grain were the only problem, I'd chalk it up to the film stock and give the video a higher score. However, edges are soft and the print is speckled with damage and scratches. Contrast levels also occasionally waver and fail to establish any sort of consistency throughout the production. If this was the director's intention, it's a big misstep -- compared to the image quality of 'Black Snake Moan' (Brewer's follow-up film, released simultaneously to high-def), the video quality is from another era. 'Black Snake Moan' retained a gritty feel without sacrificing the picture -- 'Hustle & Flow' is simply a messy disappointment.
If you look past its flaws, colors are generally well saturated, skintones are natural, and black levels are good. Compared to the standard DVD, this HD DVD transfer of 'Hustle & Flow' offers a decent upgrade in resolution and fidelity -- but the high definition presentation works against the video quality and calls too much attention to the on-screen grit. Some may argue that the print enhances the mood, but I'd personally much rather immerse myself in the film on its own merits.
Note that while the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions of 'Hustle & Flow' sport different encodes (this HD DVD gets a VC-1 transfer, while the Blu-ray gets AVC MPEG-4), a direct compare between the two transfers yielded identical results.
Happily, the audio package is much more impressive than the video. Featuring a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix (1.5 Mbps), the 'Hustle & Flow' HD DVD boasts great dynamics that highlight the intricacies of the music. Bass beats are solid, synthesized treble blips are stable, and the rappers voices flow within the music across the front channels. The music relly sounds amazing and I felt like I was listening to a high quality audio CD instead of watching a movie.
Channel accuracy is dead on and the sound design includes a convincing layer of ambiance distributed nicely across all the channels. The soundfield has presence and rings true regardless of what's happening on screen. Channel movement is subtle and I only noticed two instances where effect pans seemed choppy. Also of note, the audio tracks on the HD DVD and Blu-ray versions of 'Hustle & Flow' (while once again unequal in bitrate) sound nearly identical to me -- if you listen for it, the HD DVD mix has a slightly broader dynamic range, but it doesn't create enough of an impact to effect the audio ratings.
My only major complaint is that the dialog on this track, while clear and well-prioritized, tends to lack the crispness of other high-def releases. Scenes will suddenly be host to hollow voices or murky speech and it's instantly apparent when it happens. It's a consistent problem and will distract audiophiles, but it isn't enough to ruin this otherwise above average sound mix.
'Hustle & Flow' comes with a healthy package of supplements, all of which were first made available on the standard DVD, and all of which are presented in 480i/p only.
The most notable and exciting extra is the commentary track with writer/director Craig Brewer. His passion for 'Hustle & Flow' is obvious from the start and he seems hardly able contain his enthusiasm. As he does on the excellent commentary on 'Black Snake Moan,' Brewer discusses the actors, the crew, the performances, the script (in all its various forms), as well as all the various little details about Memphis that he massaged into the film. The best bits include stories from Brewer's past and his own experiences in the deep south. His engaging tone and entertaining anecdotes make this commentary well worth the time.
Next up are a series of top quality featurettes. "Behind the Hustle" (28 minutes) is a behind-the-scenes video that includes rehearsal footage, cast & crew interviews, and fly-on-the-wall moments behind the cameras. The information presented is slightly repetitive to Brewer's commentary, but it never makes the featurette feel dry. "By Any Means Necessary" (15 minutes) focuses on the process of getting 'Hustle & Flow' onto the big screen. It details the struggles, the script changes, the production meetings, and the frustrating ends to which the filmmakers worked to drum up funding for the film. Finally, "Creating Crunk" (14 minutes) is a great addition that I wish was much longer. It examines the music in the film, the original songs, and the way they were written and produced. I could watch this kind of featurette for hours and I was really impressed with the level of effort that went into the production of the soundtrack.
Rounding out the disc are a few odds-and-ends that will mostly appeal to completists and/or hardcore fans of the film. There's stark audition footage of the "Paula Jay Parker Audition" (3 minutes), amusing "Ludacris and Terrence Howard" rehearsal footage (3 minutes), an MTV-styled look at the "Memphis Hometown Premiere" (5 minutes), and two Extended Scenes (5 minutes) that are good enough that they should have been kept in the film.
There's also an amusing rendition of "Hard Out Here for a Pimp" (3 minutes) which features the cast and crew singing on-set while someone plays an acoustic guitar. Lastly, there are a collection of "Promotional Spots" (4 minutes).
It doesn't matter if you're a fan of rap or hip-hop culture or not -- 'Hustle & Flow' is a brilliant character study that resonates on many different levels. Fans will be happy to find a great audio package and a nice collection of special features, but unfortunately the video on 'Hustle & Flow' is one of the worst transfers I've seen. For those considering replacing their standard-def edition with this one, this HD DVD still offers an upgrade, but the trade-offs may not justify spending your hard-earned money all over again.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.