Friday, September 27, 2013

Filly Brown (2012)

Filly BrownAs a movie fan in general, I enjoyed Filly Brown. But as a longtime urban music journalist, I also appreciated just how true to life this movie was. What makes Filly Brown stand out from movies like Hustle and Flow or 8 Mile is both how it deals with women in urban music, and having a female lead that offers a powerful performance.

Filly Brown tells the story of Majo Tonorio, a Latina rapper who dreams of performing for huge audiences. The Los Angeles MC builds her buzz rapping on the radio as Filly Brown, but her desire to get signed gets put into full gear because of her family. Filly's mother (played by Jenni Rivera) is serving a ten year prison sentence, her only hope for early release depends on whether Filly can come up with fast cash. What follows is a story of desire, manipulation, and redemption.

Despite having a low budget, Filly Brown was shot well. But what really stands out about the movie is the cast, a mix of film veterans and new faces. Gina Rodriguez puts on a terrific performance as Filly Brown, with a voice and intensity that made her a great choice for the role.

Edward James Olmos adds some seasoning to the film, and is reunited with Stand and Deliver alumnus Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays the hardworking father of Filly and her younger sister. Film and TV star Emilio Rivera plays Mani, Filly's protective uncle and boss. California rappers Cuete Yeska and Baby Bash add new faces to the cast, with H-Town artist Chingo Bling adding some needed humor to the film as Filly's manager.

Despite this being her first feature film, Jenni Rivera (RIP) offers a moving portrayal of Maria, Filly's drug addicted mother doing hard time. Rivera ditched her trademark stage glamor for a prison uniform to deliver a haunting and memorable performance. Her scenes are convincing, bittersweet considering Filly Brown will be the only time she appears in movie theaters.

As far as the movie's inside look at the urban music game, Filly Brown scores for realism. Hip Hop managers are left hanging when labels strike backroom deals. Female rappers are often denied mainstream attention if they refuse to compromise their artistic integrity. In this case, Filly succumbs to the pressure of "sexing up" her image and lyrics to land a record deal for a fast payout to help her mother.

The movie isn't flawless, of course. Filly Brown offers more than a couple character types common to other movies, which gives several scenes a recycled feel. There are also one too many subplots, which threatens to muddle the film as the end approaches.

Overall, Filly Brown succeeds. Its lineup of actors, surprisingly good Hip Hop soundtrack, and tear-jerking ending all make it a film to remember. Although the film features a variety of established Latino actors and artists, it's a movie that anyone should be able to enjoy. Definitely worth getting on DVD or Blu-Ray.

Imagine my surprise when out of nowhere and without any pre-release fanfare this movie showed up this past weekend at my local art-house theatre here in Cincinnati. I figure that this would not be playing long, so I decided to see it (as it turns out, on the very last day of its screening here, as it is already gone after one week).

As "Filly Brown" (2013 release; 101 min.) opens, we see Majo (played by Gina Rodriguez) performing at an in-studio radio session as Filly Brown, a hip-hop singer who is trying to find success. In the very next scene we see Majo visiting someone in jail, and we learn very quickly that it is her mom Maria (played by Jenni Rivera), who is serving time on a drug charge. Maria is quite the manipulative person, and she is trying to get Majo to somehow get several thousand dollars so that Maria might perhaps get a retrial. We get to know the lawyer who will head up the effort to get a retrial, Leandro (played by Edward James Olmos, who looks to be about 85 or 90). We also get to know Majo's dad/Maria's husband Jos (played by Lou Diamond Phillips). Majo/Filly Brown is turning some heads with her music, and pretty soon she is getting courted by a major player in the hip-hop world who is trying add to her street cred and sultry image. To tell you more of the plot would surely ruin your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.

Several comments: first, this movie plays more like a tough family drama than it does as a Latino/hip-hop version of "A Star Is Born". That does not mean that music isn't a major factor in this movie. In fact, the music plays a key role in particular tjhe first half of the movie. I am not big into hip-hop as such, yet I found myself enjoying the music a lot. Second, Gina Rodriguez really shines in the title role, and is someone to be watched. Even better, she does all of her own singing in the movie. (The movie soundtrack, available here on Amazon, inexplicably only has 2 songs on it from the many songs Gina Rodriguez performs in the movie.) Third, this is sadly Jenni Rivera's last screen role, as she died in an accident late last year (before the movie got its wide release). Fourth, can someone explain to me why it took 15 months for this movie, first shown at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, to get released in theatres? Last but not least, I (a middle-aged while male) am certainly not the target audience for this movie, yet I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. If you're in the mood for a great indie movie consisting of a Latino family drama with a twist of hip-hop music added to it, I can readily recommmend this movie.

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