Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Unrentables: Rappin'

Due to the overwhelming e-mail response to the last Unrentables column, I'll try to make it a regular feature. To keep things interesting, I have asked my co-workers to pick out Unrentables for me, thus removing any personal prejudices I might have from the selection process. Remember, all reviewed films have been on the shelves at Laser Blazer for at least 2 and a half years, and have never rented. Even once. Not even by an employee for free.

Tonight's entry, the 1985 effort Rappin', was an early attempt by Hollywood to assimilate hip hop culture. Following the success of Beat Street and Breakin', another teen breakdancing/rapping drama must have seemed like a sure thing. Oh good sweet lord.

Director: Joel Silberg
IMDB Rating: 3.0

Suffering in extreme poverty following years of unemployment, Mario van Peebles is forced to devour his own hand for nourishment.

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that our store's rental copy of Rappin' is in full-frame. This means that the actual picture I'll be reviewing will have the sides cut off. I'm sure a film stocked with gorgeous widescreen compositions like Rappin' will suffer from the translation, but this is the only print available. Perhaps this is why the film hasn't rented?

The movie opens with incredibly awkward '80s rapping from star Mario van Peebles. He's just been released from prison. In his words "I like to boogie down the block/Coming back with shiny new socks." Man, that's awesome, the way he rhymed block with socks like that. Not at all forced.

No one really raps in the movie. They just mouth the words and then the director synched up the actual rapping in post-production. The ADR is actually pretty bad, so a lot of the rapping scenes kind of look like bad dubs of foreign films. Which is, you know, ideal for a movie largely about rappers.

So Mario comes back to the old neighborhood and reunites with his old crew, which includes Eriq la Salle and his younger brother, Allan. They go and visit their Grandma, with whom Mario will be living. Regrettably, they do a little impromptu rap for her. My God, the rapping in this movie is intolerable. These two idiots basically repeat the phrase "Two of a kind/We're here to stay" over and over again on top of one of those pre-set beats that came programmed on the old Casio synthesizers. This performance made me yearn for the wit and subtlety of the Rapping Granny.

Cut to Headband Night at the local club, which forces you to confront the reality that a lot of early hip hop style was merely an extension of disco. The beats, the breakdancing, the woeful hair styles. It's all there. The only difference is a lot of the guys are wearing those black Run DMC hats. (Except Dwayne Wayne from "A Different World," who for some reason is sporting a Union soldier hat from Civil War days.)

I don't understand why the breakdancing in this movie sucks so bad. It's a movie about breakdancing. I mean, Breakin' 2, say what you will about that piece of crap, at least some of the dance moves look pretty good. Most of the dance scenes here look like they were choreographed by Hunter Thompson in the grips of an ether binge.

An argument breaks out at the club between Mario, who stands up for a girl's honor, and a whiteboy mook in a leather jacket. At one point, the white guy uses the retort "Hay is for horses!" It just goes downhill from there. He sneers at Eriq la Salle "Don't make me thaw you out, Ice!" Oooh, scary. It's the least convincing standoff since Wesley Snipes and MJ faced off in the "Bad" video. I'm not saying the villain is a little over the top with the evil, but he makes Snidley Whiplash look nuanced and conflicted in comparison.

The gang, who call themselves The Rappin' Hoods (Mario's name in the film is John Hood, so it's totally clever), goes to visit a friend who works at a warehouse. Then they do a choreographed rap number about how their fat friend likes food.

The art of eating takes aptitude/
You better develop some fortitude/
Before your body has a horizontal attitude!

Okay, that makes no sense at all. I mean, yes, rhyming is important, but the rhymes have to fit together to tell a story or relate an idea. This was lame even by significantly lowered 1985 standards.

I should mention as well that Eriq la Salle in this scene keeps making these weird, prissy hand gestures as a substitute for dancing. It's probably this, more than the rampant destruction that goes along with their spontaneous musical number, that gets poor unfortunate Richie fired. The friends add insult to injury by stealing a bunch of food from the warehouse and deliver it to all the poor people in their neighborhood. (You should see one old woman's face light up when she gets an actual box of pasta. That's a $2 value! In 1985 dollars? Are you kidding me? Cha-ching!)
We're now 25 minutes into this movie, and nothing at all has happened. Lets review: Mario gets out of jail, he raps, he gets into a pseudo-fight in a club, he raps about fat people enjoying food. Then he brings food to a run-down tenement building full of doe-eyed orphans, but runs away before anyone sees him.

Then there's like four pointless musical numbers in a row. A horrible duo of soul crooners - we'll call them Seals and Croft Jr. - do a cheesy AM duet in the Power Plus Records studio. Then the Apollo Kids do a routine called "Golly Gee, Honey" that made me want to bash my skull with a ballpeen hammer until I lost consciousness. Then Mario shows up and freestyles about colors for the kids. Really. They shout out a color, like "pink," then he raps about it. "Pink, pink is the color I think/Of little girls at the skating rink." I knew I should have purchased a cyanide capsule before embarking on this project. That's preparation, innit?

By the way, blue is the color he wears when he's rapping and walking down the street. In case you were curious.

After the charming color sequence, the girl whose honor he defended in the club, Dixie, asks him, and I quote, "have you ever thought about going pro into rap?" YES! Awesome! Pro into rap! I think Mario ought to turn pro. I mean, Jay-Z might have the world's greatest flow and Nas may be the voice of his generation, but can either of them come up with a freestyle rap on the spot about any color a kid might think of? Mario can do 3 minutes on mauve that will really make you think.

So impressed is Dixie by Mario's mad skillz, she invites him an audition the recording studio (where Seals and Croft Jr. performed) is having for rap groups.

"I'm not an entertainer," Mario protests in a rare moment of self-awareness, but she begs.

Around this time, the late, great Harry Goz, who would years later voice Captain Murphy on Adult Swim's "Sealab 2021" appears as a developer intent on tearing down the tenement building. I guess he hates painfully earnest rapping about everyday situations as much as I do.

"Hey, what kind of yang is this?" yells Eriq la Salle as the aforementioned Ice upon reading the eviction notice. The whole sequence is startlingly similar to the first scene in Jonathan Larson's rock opera Rent. Now, I'm not neccessarily saying that Larson ripped off his show from Rappin', but it's pretty obvious that he did.

As one of Goz's cruel underlings takes off in his car after posting the notices, we get Mario's first omniscient voice-over rap, where he comments on the action in the movie in which he doesn't even take part.

With your polyester suit and your phony briefcase/
Don't you know you're a total disgrace/
Sold out your brother man for the promise of cash/
And that's why you're about to crash

Kind of hurts the realism of the rest of the movie. Perhaps the whole film is really just one of Mario's raps - a 90 minute concept rap about the community center in his old neighborhood - illustrated for our entertainment. You know, kind of like a mood piece.

So Harry Goz's goon and the mook from the club hook up to get rid of John Hood. I'm not quite sure why. What threat does Mr. Hood pose to them? He's just some idiot who hangs around the neighborhood rapping poorly. Their conspiracy against him seems a bit overblown. The mook is just upset that his constant threats of violence against Dixie haven't yet won her heart. He's a follower of the Biff Tannen school of seduction, wherein you flex your muscles and punch the wall nearest to the girl you like in order to attract her attention.

At the battle of the rap groups, Ice-T performs in a ludicrous red pleather outfit, jumping about the stage yelling about "killers" and waving around a fake plastic gun. (Possibly he and Richard Belzer were there undercover to scope out potential sexual offenders, I can't be sure.) The music executive says they're alright, but he's looking for something else, something more...ear-meltingly obnoxious. A bunch of whackjobs in blue sweaters and purple pants do a little acrobatic dance to a song called "Itchin' for a Scratch."

Up in my ears/
Down to my feet/
I can't stop scratchin' this funky beat

These guys are John Hood's sole major competition, and he still doesn't come off looking that great. He launches into a freestyle rap about "lady alcohol" for the benefit of some drunk guys, and the radio executive is very impressed. He's been looking for a douchebag who irritatingly tells others how to behave in the form of horrible rapping. He offers him $200 - $200 - to come and record at the studio the next day! Of course, Mario demands the payment in cash, hoping maybe they'll think he plans to spend it on drugs and is therefore cool. No, no, I'm kidding. He needs it to save the poor hildren.

Dixie's understandably overjoyed, and not just because the thrift store had a sale on fingerless gloves and leg warmers. But, you know, that was part of it.

Everything works out in perfunctory, predictable fashion. Goz and his partners team up to implicate John's younger brother for stealing a car radio. John has to earn money via rap in order to free his younger sibling and save the town. You get where I'm going with this...

You know what's most strange about the whole film, though? It's the story of a guy who just wants to rap, who doesn't want to do it for a living but just lives to tell stories in half-formed, barely-enunciated verse. So, essentially, it's the polar opposite of the modern inspirational rap story, like Hustle and Flow or 8 Mile, where the whole point is to use rapping as a springboard to making a lot of money and being a celebrity businessman. That probably doesn't mean anything, because Rappin' wasn't so much about actual hip hop culture in 1985, but Hollywood's ill-informed imitation of hip hop culture. But it's still kind of interesting. Which is more than I can say for the film itself.

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