FFFJ: Prison Song
Directed by Darnell Martin (I Like it Like That), and co-written by Martin and the film's star, rapper/actor Q-Tip, Prison Song was the first (that I know of) attempt to film a rap/hip hop musical. But what I felt really made the script stand out was its realistic, gritty portrayal of urban life. Unlike such supposedly realistic, but actually melodramatic exaggerations such as the superior Boyz N the Hood, and its many poor rip-offs, Prison Song dramatized the true struggles of inner city life, without demonizing other individuals. Some of the obstacle characters, such as a white public school teacher (played by Elvis Costello), cops, and prison guards are the "villains" in this film. The real villain here is the system itself, and the script brings this out deftly.
Similarly, many of the central characters (including another played by Mary J. Blige) are genuine and multi-dimensional. They are not overly heroic, nor particularly "evil." They are individuals facing difficult choices, which reveal character flaws despite often positive intentions.
One of the more intriguing and ambitious aspects of the script was the manner in which the rap songs were incorporated into the script. They not only pushed the envelope in terms of the so-called "urban drama," but also attempted to advance a new form of movie musical as well. Rather than developing into larger scale production numbers, the musical numbers in Prison Song act as intimate soliloquies, opening a window into the characters' inner emotions. This method also fits nicely with the lyrical style of rap songs in general.
Still, in my coverage I noted some flaws, and also warned where the script could go wrong in its transition to the screen. While the dialogue was fresh and believable, it also left little to the imagination, including very little subtext. I think this ultimately exacerbated the biggest weakness of the eventual film that this script became: poor acting. The acting in Prison Song was sub-par to begin with, but when the actors also have to speak spot-on dialogue, their poor acting was merely drawn to the fore. Also, the climax of the script seemed tacked on, which in a serious drama becomes a fatal flaw. When a film of this nature is sketched to reach a tragic conclusion, any hint of cheesiness will short-circuit that ending.
Ultimately, however, I think the main weakness of Prison Song as a film is in its execution. Bottom line, Martin did a poor job of directing this film. It may have partially resulted from too low a budget, or the rumored market-research-spewed recutting to eliminate many of the musical numbers. But in the end, Martin failed to coax believable performances from her actors, and let them wallow in cheap production values that remove much of the realism and "grit" from the film and what it could have ultimately become. In the close of my comments on Prison Song I warned that:
it could easily lose much of its believability if it became too stylized. What makes this film realistic is the understated balance between the inner goodness and outer struggles of its characters. Were it to lose this balance, the film could easily become laughable.Unfortunately, I think that is actually what happened with this film. Still, I have a lot of respect for the filmmakers here. They showed a lot of courage to undertake this ambitious project, and though extremely flawed, I feel the film is worth watching as an instructional tool. See if you can find it on DVD. If not, I have a copy in my collection!
Tags: script+reading, Prison+Song, Tribeca+Productions, Darnell+Martin, Q-Tip, Elvis+Costello, Mary+J+Blige, rap+musical