A would-be hip-hop star (Pras) struggles to escape the projects and preserve the integrity of his “art” in a sea of drug dealers and industry sharks in Robert Adetuyi’s crushingly obvious, utterly banal debut feature. “Turn It Up” might be a salable title for the result, but “Turn It Off” would be more apt.
Actually, the music score is one of the happier surprises in the picture, since it’s remarkably restrained; this is a tale of a relatively quiet rapper, heaven be praised. The movie also doesn’t look too bad; cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski is clearly a professional. But that pretty much exhausts the virtues on display here. Adetuyi’s script isn’t so much a screenplay as it’s a string of cliches, with dialogue mostly consisting of endless repetitions of the “F” word and its longer “MF” relative, along with lots of “yo’s,” “cools,” “chills,” and “man’s.” The acting is dreadful across the board. Pras poses like a mannequin and mouths his lines as though he were reading them phonetically off a teleprompter. As his buddy-manager, Ja Rule is looser, but he just does the predictable gangsta strut. Vondie Curtis Hall, his hair a maze of curls, is broodingly impassive as the hero’s long-lost father, who returns after his ex-wife’s death to teach sonny-boy how to write music with true feeling.
But as bad as the picture is from a purely narrative and technical standpoint, it’s even worse in terms of its attitudes and presumptions. Although it pushes lessons that wouldn’t be out of place on Oprah or Dr. Laura (take responsibility for your children, be loyal to your friends, don’t do drugs), it wants to have things both ways by periodically glorifying the violence and brutality it pretends to condemn, regaling us with gunfights in which assault weapons charmingly mow down great rows of villains (inept marksmen all). And it panders to its target audience by ostentatiously fingering Caucasians, Orientals and Hispanics as the source of all the protagonist’s difficulties: the level of subtlety is nicely demonstrated in the fact that the ultimate music industry heel is named Mr. White (John Ralston).
One imagines that there must have been some good intentions behind a film like “Turn It Up,” but they’ve been so mangled in the telling and obscured by the poor writing, stilted acting and leaden direction that they’re no longer even vaguely apparent. The picture may attract the audiences for whom it’s been so manipulatively fashioned, but in the final analysis it’s more exploitative than uplifting.