[Screen It]

(2000) (Pras Michel, Ja Rule) (R)

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Drama: An aspiring rapper must contend with various obstacles in his quest for stardom, including his gangster best friend who will do anything to get him the money he needs to succeed in the music business.
Diamond (PRAS MICHEL) is an aspiring rap artist who hopes his music will be a legitimate way for him to escape his inner city life. Unfortunately, his lack of enough money prevents him from getting the quality studio time he needs. Thus, he often accompanies and backs up his best friend and "producer," Gage (JA RULE), on the various drug runs he makes for Mr. B (JASON STATHAM), a local crime lord, to earn extra cash.

Diamond's home life isn't much better than his professional one. His mother has just died, his long estranged, jazz musician father, Cliff (VONDIE CURTIS HALL), is temporarily staying with him, and his girlfriend (TAMALA JONES), has just announced she's pregnant.

Nonetheless, Diamond continues trying to put together a demo tape, but little does he know that Gage - who sees a more luxuriant life for himself through financing his friend and then riding his coattails to success - has made some poor choices in the ways he's been "raising" money for his friend. As a result, Diamond must contend with the ramifications of Gage's criminal behavior, all while dealing with his father and girlfriend as he tries to finish his album.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Like most people in the world, the majority of recording artists come from middle class and/or humble means, and don't let the fact that they weren't born with a silver microphone in their hands deter them from their drive or talent. Others overcome amazing professional and personal obstacles and set backs that would derail most anyone in leading just a normal life, let alone one's attempts at succeeding in the highly competitive world of popular music.

Many of today's stars are living proof of just that. For instance, Shania Twain had to overcome the simultaneous death of her parents and then having to raise her younger siblings while trying to break into the music business. It's rap and not country music, however, where one hears the most stories about artists surviving their tenuous upbringing and childhood in various inner-city projects, surrounded by crime, death, poverty and/or squalor.

Since many such young urbanites have transcended their decidedly less than glamorous roots to become successful rappers and hip-hop artists, they're seen as role models by the younger generation in the same predicament who similarly hope to climb out by following in their footsteps.

Considering the built-in conflict and various obstacles, such stories of going from rags to riches - or at least attempting to do so - have made and continue to make for interesting dramatic films. Of course, and notwithstanding the rap angle, such tales of struggling musicians aren't anything new.

Alan Parker's "The Commitments" did it - and quite wonderfully -- for a fictitious Irish band of the same name, and now first-time filmmaker Robert Adetuyi hopes to do the same with "Turn It Up," the story of a struggling rapper who wants to go legit but can't entirely shake his criminal ties and other inner-city issues.

Although those films have their similarities, this film has far more in common with 1984's "Purple Rain." Both feature young African-American characters - played by real-life performers in loose autobiographical form - who hope to make it big in the music business while dealing with their estranged fathers, girlfriends and other issues.

To no one's surprise, both films were also designed to promote their stars and sell as many soundtrack albums as possible. Yet, where "Purple Rain" succeeded at doing just that, it's not very likely that this film will do the same. To be accurate, Prince's film wasn't a hit because of an outstanding story or stellar acting (neither of which it possessed). Instead, it was due to the tremendous songs as well as the extravagant and riveting concert performances and music video montages it contained in an era before MTV had completely influenced and/or afflicted too many films and their filmmakers.

It's doubtful this film will stir up much commotion, as its music is clearly nothing spectacular. While I'm no big fan of rap, the songs here are clearly instantly forgettable, and the whole tie-in with crime and "gangstas" has been covered so many times in rap music videos that the film ends up feeling like recycled tripe.

Although Adetuyi, who works from his own screenplay, occasionally manages to infuse the film with a few decently staged moments, it certainly doesn't help that the acting is often quite stiff and that the dialogue is more often than not extremely stilted and contrived.

However, the film's biggest problem - beyond all of that and the stereotypical story clichés of the genre (the pregnant girlfriend, the estranged father, etc.) - is that the protagonist isn't likable or sympathetic. Although he's supposed to be the troubled artist type who eventually goes legit after talking about it for the whole movie, the way in which the character is drawn and ultimately portrayed by real-life rap artist turned actor Pras Michel (who made his acting debut in "Mystery Men") leaves the viewer neither liking nor caring about him.

His character's literal partner-in-crime, also played by a real-life rap artist, Ja Rule, doesn't fair much better as his steadfast friend/criminal thug demeanor and actions don't elicit any favorable reactions from the viewer. Supporting performances from the likes of Vondie Curtis Hall ("Eve's Bayou"), Tamala Jones ("The Wood") and Jason Statham ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels") are okay considering what's asked of them, but otherwise are pretty much strictly by the books with each not doing much more than fulfilling their necessary bits of providing conflict for the protagonist and his goals.

Although the two main characters and the film may appear to be "cool" to fans of the actors/performers as well as those into the whole "gangsta" lifestyle and scene, the film just isn't that interesting or good. As a result, mainstream moviegoers are likely to shout "Turn It Off!" to "Turn It Up." The film rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed August 31, 2000 / Posted September 6, 2000

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