The Thrill

July 22, 2011

Hustle & Flow and Once would pretty much be the exact same movie if not for significant differences in setting, characters, tone, style, and plot.

(For example, one is set in Memphis, the other in Dublin. One centers around a rapping pimp, the other a guitar-strumming Hoover repairman. And in one, the main character tends to look down while holding a mic and wearing a “D-jay” gold necklace, while in the other, the main character often walks out of the frame on a giant, physics-defying guitar neck.)

But casting aside those minor quibbles, both movies share something at the core — characters who feel compelled to make music. It is no coincidence, then, that the the best scene in Hustle & Flow and the best scene in Once are more alike than not.

In the best Hustle & Flow scene, D-jay is preparing, for the first time, to record the rap lyrics he’s been working on for years, hoping that a career in music will help him escape from his crappy life (because it’s hard out there for a pimp). But things aren’t looking too hopeful. His recording studio is little more than a small bedroom that he’s “soundproofed” by stapling cardboard cartons to the walls, and the person who’s about to lay down the music track is some gangly white geek named “Shelby.”

Shelby begins the session by experimenting on a keyboard, trying out variations on a six-note riff, while D-jay looks on, impassive. But after just a few quick moments, Shelby finds something that works and begins layering the track — hand-claps, and high-hat, and rattles, and snare, and bass — completing a radio-ready music track in about thirty seconds. D-jay, almost involuntarily at first, begins bobbing to the music and then, after his friend Key prompts him, launches into his hook, “Whoop that trick.”

By the end of the song, the bedroom has drawn a little crowd, with D-jay, Shelby, Key, and two of D-jay’s “employees” all waving their arms in the air and hollering “Whoop that trick!” at the top of their lungs, lost in the music and forgetting, for a moment, their hopeless circumstances. (It’s a magical moment, to be sure, and it’s only slightly tempered by the fact that the song is about beating up prostitutes.)

While the best scene from Once doesn’t match that raw energy, it shares in that same thrill of spontaneously creating something special with someone else. In the scene, a street musician, named simply “the Guy,” and a flower vendor, named “the Girl,” are sitting down at a piano in a music shop. The Girl admires the Guy’s songs and wants to accompany him on the piano. After the Guy shows her the sheet music to one of his songs, he begins playing, slowly picking the opening notes on his acoustic guitar while carefully watching the Girl to make sure she’s following along.

Midway through the first verse, the Girl not only is easily keeping pace with the piano, but she begins singing as well, perfectly harmonizing with him. The Guy can only smile. At that moment, it’s become abundantly clear to him that, musically at least, they are completely compatible.

In both scenes, the main characters have a burning drive to create music, but they are unable to reach their full potential alone. So they find help. There is, then, in both scenes, a sense of uncertainty early on, but this soon gives way to trust — once the others prove themselves — followed by complete rapture during the performance.

It is, I think, that spontaneous thrill of creating with others that at least partly explains why Jill and I are on our fourth blog, or why the Colonel and I are beginning Book 2 even while Book 1 remains in limbo, or why I’m constantly collaborating with friends and family to write, shoot, and edit videos that will only be seen by a handful of people.

(Speaking of which, if you’re out there, Professor — soon to be Dr. Professor — I know you’re busy writing about curriculum mapping, and collaborative learning, and, um, other doctorly things, but it’s time to finish The Pilot.)

Like the characters in in those scenes, we’re all seeking that thrill when we create — that sense that, by ourselves, we can be good, but with someone else, we can be something truly special.

That, and money.

— Reinman


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