The Sound of Musicals: 8 Mile
Boiling it down to its simplest form, 8 Mile is equal parts Rocky and Purple Rain. Like Rocky, we follow an underdog trying to rise above his station. Eminem stars as Jimmy, who has a natural talent as a rapper/freestyler, but his lack of confidence holds him back. Like Purple Rain, the music resonates with the characters and audience; also, it’s not every day that a role is perfectly tailor-made for a musician, whose main forte isn’t acting.
The backdrop of the film is Detroit in 1995. The part of the city Jimmy and his fellow rapper friends reside in is on the “wrong side of the tracks”, across the 8-mile stretch of highway dividing the upper and lower classes. Unfortunately, the Detroit on display here looks no different than the Detroit of today. In 8 Mile, the city is as desolate and unforgiving as the Detroit seen in recent films like It Follows and Don’t Breathe. Jimmy works in an automotive plant, struggling for more hours in a job he hates. After breaking up with his girlfriend, he has to move back in with his mom (Kim Basinger), his kid sister and his mom’s boyfriend (Michael Shannon), in a trailer park. Jimmy’s self-confidence is at a low when he tries to win a rap battle at the start of the film. He chokes and runs off stage defeated, all in front of a large crowd. The rest of the film sees Jimmy building up the courage to get back on that stage, showing off his freestyle rap talent. It's music that drives him. You see him scribbling down lyrics, building songs in his head that he hopes can help him escape his low-rung life.
The film plays into the usual underdog troupes you’d see in a standard drama, but what elevates everything is the music. Music is played throughout, whether it’s on the soundtrack, played in car radios or in the form of freestyle raps; having revisited this film after more than a decade, I was nodding my head to the seemingly ever-present beat. What’s brilliant here is that the musical sequences all feel natural; freestyle rape is spontaneous and when Jimmy and his friend Future (Mekhi Phifer) hear “Sweet Home Alabama” playing in the background, they start rapping along with it. It’s during these moments when Eminem, the actor, is at his best. He can loosen up and fully inhabit the role of Jimmy when the music is upfront. Eminem's performance is a bit too constrained and the flashes of exuberance are welcome. Moments like when Jimmy jumps into an impromptu rap battle during his lunch break at work really pushes the magic of an artist and performer. Director Curtis Hanson understands this, and takes Scott Silver’s script (which shares a lot of parallels to Eminem’s real life) and fully embraces the art of rap, the struggle that Jimmy goes through, from the lows to the highs.
The remaining cast fills out the film exceptionally well. Basinger and Shannon perfectly embody the type of “white trash” Jimmy wants to separate himself from. Anthony Mackie plays Jimmy’s main adversary, the freestyle Apollo Creed who he faces in the final rap battle. Mackie, here early in his career, shows off that arrogance plus charisma he’s known for now. Last, but not least, the late Brittany Murphy plays Jimmy’s love interest, a woman with the same desire to move away from Detroit as him; she’s one of the few people who really believes in him and she’s one of the biggest reasons why he finds himself on stage at the very end of the film. Murphy had an aurora that few filmmakers ever really channeled to its full extent. Hanson knows exactly how to use Murphy as an actress, not only making her the object of Jimmy’s affection, but making her a sexy and powerful presence. You’re rightfully drawn to her each time the camera focuses on those big brown eyes. It’s a damn shame she passed at a young age. There was so much potential there, and you see it on display in 8 Mile.
The main song in the film written and performed by Eminem, “Lose Yourself”, became his first number one U.S. single and earned him an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The film itself became a box office hit and has become influential in the musical drama genre. It’s perfectly fine that Eminem essentially retired from acting after 8 Mile, making only two small film cameos (Funny People, The Interview) in the last 14 years. 8 Mile presents a once-in-a-lifetime moment for Eminem. Few performers are fortunate enough to have films perfectly enrapture their music as well as this does. On top of that, 8 Mile is an essential film in the musical genre, one that knows and expresses the vitality of music and how it plays a crucial role in one artist’s life. It's a film that'll lift your spirit, while also making you bop your head.