Dir/scr. Craig Brewer.US. 2004. 114mins.

Hustle & Flow sets a new standard for films about rap music, ifonly because it's a strong-piece of story-driven filmmaking in its own right.While 8 Mile was a star-vehicle for rapper Eminem, the new film exploresnot just the making of the music - by any means necessary - but the forces thatmake rap so vital a mirror of the US underclass.

Paramount-MTV Films, whopaid $9m for the title at Sundance, will be rewarded with robust business fromblack Americans and rap fans. While the lack of mainstream stars will limit itsbreak-out potential its window on the technicalities of laying down the groovecan only help rap's cause. One comes out of this film with a betterunderstanding of, and respect for, the process of rap as a musical form.

Hustle & Flow lives up to its title through note-perfect dialogueand a searing central performance by Terrence Howard, as a Memphis pimpundergoing a mid-life crisis. When he learns that Skinny Black (Ludacris), aMemphis contemporary who is now a hugely-successful rap artist, is returning totown for a July 4 concert, DJay is forced to confront his own place in theworld: behind the wheel of a beaten-up sedan peddling dope, living in aclapped-out house with his three sad-eyed charges, Lexus (Parker), Nola(Manning), and Shug (Henson), who is hugely pregnant with some trick's childand thus not making him money. When he accepts an electronic keyboard aspayment from a penniless junkie, DJay recalls his earlier years and the musicalaspirations that led to his nickname.

A chance encounter with aformer classmate, Key (Anderson), who works as a sound engineer, leads to anepiphany at a church where Key is recording a gospel choir. DJay finds faithbut it isn't Christianity; rather, it's a realisation that he has something tosay and perhaps the ability to say it through rap.

Convincing Key to record hiswords isn't easy; and when Key brings along a white keyboard player, Shelby(Qualls), DJay faces a hurdle of own. So begins the process, as new partnershash out the frame of a piece that DJay, like any neophyte writing first aboutwhat he knows, calls "It's Hard for a Pimp".

The strength of the storylies in the characterisation of DJay, who despite his epiphany and easy banter,remains an unrepentant criminal and a cruel boss. When Lexus belittles hisdream, he throws her from the house and then picks up her toddler - a childwhom we've seen him play with on the keyboard - and plops him outside besideher. Similarly, when he needs to buy a new microphone and notices the merchanteying Nola he negotiates a barter - a reasonable transaction in his eyes but,for Nola, a devastating violation of their pact.

The film brims with smartlines and darkly comic touches. Before first using his new mike, DJayacknowledges Nola as his "principal investor" and asks her to kiss it; she laysinto the phallic object with gusto.

As the July 4 concertapproaches, DJay - like an official sponsor - has landed the responsibility ofsupplying the finest marijuana for the rapper in the hope that he can pass hima demo tape. Brewer plots a steady course through the third-act, generally aminefield of cliche in films about musical aspirations.

In the key role of SkinnyBlack, rapper Ludacris provides the menace and intimidation that puts DJay backon his heels. When DJay fishes his demo-tape out of the toilet, his dreams areconsumed by his fury and the ensuing fireworks.

While Terrence Howard's workhere may well be a stepping-stone to a Jamie Foxx-like career upgrade, thesecondary performers will also benefit, particularly Taryn Manning who achievesa heart-breaking intensity in key moments. It all comes down to Brewer'sremarkable facility with dialogue and story-telling; small wonder Paramount hassigned him to a $6m two-picture deal.

Prod co: New Deal Entertainment
Int'l sales:
New DealEntertainment
US dist:
Paramount/MTV Films
John Singleton, StephanieAllain
Amelia Vincent
Prod des:
Keith Brian Burns
Billy Fox
Scott Bonar
Main cast:
Terrence Howard,Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning, Taraji Henson, DJ Qualls, Ludacris