Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Men of the Mean Streets



Some pop-life marriages seem not made in heaven, and yet they last, and occasionally flourish.

Think Bing Crosby and David Bowie sweetly duetting on "Little Drummer Boy"; if it were as bad as its reputation claims, the song wouldn't have become a holiday-season staple. Think Walt Disney and Salvador Dali, collaborators for a short time in the '40s. Think Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett - OK, that didn't work, but a classic example: Think of any art museum that's shown Andy Warhol's soup cans.

To this, let's add two more: Curtis Hanson, the serious-minded, journeyman filmmaker behind L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, who directed Eminem into the roof-raising 8 Mile. And think Jim Sheridan, who has not directed a classic (or a roof-raiser) with Get Rich or Die Tryin', which opens today, but is still perhaps the last filmmaker you would expect to direct 50 Cent in the rapper's first movie.

Sheridan sees it differently.

"I came to America in 1981 because I was fed up being in Ireland," Sheridan said last week in an interview. "I needed to get out of Dublin. Not because it was backward but because there was nothing there. I had done everything I wanted, and when I arrived in New York City, rap had started to explode. I think I bought more than my share of mix tapes on the street."

He name-checks a host of early Caribbean rappers, and hip-hop predecessors like Cab Calloway and Oscar Brown, Jr., and more contemporary acts like Public Enemy. "I have been interested in rap for a long time," he said. And still it doesn't seem enough.

The big-screen debut of a pop star is not typically valued artistic real estate for a respected filmmaker with plenty to do. A studio would just as well hire a seasoned music-video director - someone who markets first, edits later. And for every Eminem, there's a Vanilla Ice, certain his first picture will not be the moment he jumped the shark but the point his career soared into a multimedia stratosphere.

"What I liked about 50's story," Sheridan said, "was that he is not "What I liked about 50's story," Sheridan said, "was that he is not like everybody knows every detail about him, or feels they do. They know vague facts, but not so played out that you can't make a movie about them. I was going to do the Ali movie [Michael Mann eventually made] and found that aspect of it, the familiarity, very difficult and pretty frustrating."

The 50 Cent story is not the Buddy Holly story. It is so romantically violent and suited for the big screen, you wonder whether he lived a life inspired by movies or movies are inspired by people like Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson. He's the only artist besides the Beatles to have four songs in the Billboard Top 10 at the same time, and yet what is compelling about him, what most people primarily know, is he sold drugs, was shot nine times, dreamed of being a rap star, got signed by Columbia, then dropped by the label after he was shot in the face two times. Eminem signed him to his Slim Shady label - a few years later, here we are: with Paramount trying to replicate 8 Mile's success by pairing a quality filmmaker with a rapper.

Sheridan wasn't hard up.

He has been nominated for an Academy Award three times, including just last year for his previous film, In America. He's also a 56-year-old white guy, but one with a reputation for inspiring, no-nonsense, street-level realism - forged in frequent collaborations with Daniel Day-Lewis; together, they made My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, and The Boxer. He may have lived in New York for a spell - where 50 Cent and his Horatio Alger story began (in Queens, to be specific) - but Sheridan is most certainly, and primarily, a product of the mean streets of working-class Dublin.

And yet in his thick Irish brogue, he explains: "How did I get hooked up with 50 Cent? I was at a party at Jimmy Iovine's house. Bono was telling him how much I liked rap and hip-hop, and so Jimmy offered me the job, and it happened just like that."

Jimmy Iovine, being the president of Interscope Records, which has 50 Cent and Eminem on its roster - and Bono, being that guy who plays in that band.

Sheridan is not blase. He realizes what a strange collaboration this seems. He tells a story that happened during production that definitely didn't happen during the filming of any Daniel Day-Lewis award-season chaser.

One night while they were shooting on the streets of New York, a couple of thousand kids got wind of what was happening. They craned their necks for a look and started shouting for 50 Cent. Sheridan tried hard to keep his rapper-turned-actor in character, but the man and the persona are hard to tell apart.

Sheridan told him to stay focused. 50 turned his back on the crowd, and the crowd got ugly, saying things you don't read in a family newspaper. 50 kept his head, and when the scene finished filming, the rapper strolled over to the barricades and threw $12,000 into the crowd. His way of saying sorry, but I was working over there.

That part, Sheridan can't relate to; after the show of generosity, the director had to yell at his actor to control the crowd. But the rest of it - that's more familiar.

"I knew his world," Sheridan said. "The streets 50 grew up on were very much like streets in the poor neighborhoods I grew up in, with drugs and gangsters." Sheridan remembers playing with a band at a pub that a friend owned. The friend was a local gangster (and later murdered), and he didn't pay Sheridan and his rock band. The next night the bar burned down. The friend assumed Sheridan did it. "I didn't but I never told him otherwise."

There are, however, limits to intimidation. When Sheridan received the script, the opening scene called for 50 Cent to shoot four men to death. The rapper has said he never killed anyone.

"I wanted it to be more realistic," the director said. "So I played with the time frame a bit and changed it to things I believed rather than the cartoon violence the studio handed me. The details of his life - the idea of a guy who survives and comes back from the dead, who rises off that hospital bed - have a built-in drama. That interested me."

Sheridan was so convinced of the story's natural appeal that he rejected the studio's insistence on hiring an acting coach for the rapper. Asked if that means he became an on-set psychologist - extracting childhood trauma to be used in a performance - Sheridan said, "Suppose so."

He thought a second.

"It's not like I told him we would unearth the real 50 Cent. He is himself but he is playing a part that's not exactly him. He is creating a movie character, and that character coincides with what the real 50 Cent acts like."

Sheridan is being modest.

For a guy used to making his own decisions, the credits of Get Rich or Die Tryin' boast 15 different producers, each presumably with a hand in the final product.

"That's because 50 has management, and they are connected to Interscope, and Interscope is connected to Eminem, and Eminem is involved with 50 and 50 is involved with Paul Rosenberg, the president of Shady Records, and then there's Jimmy and the line producers and their assistants, and oh, then you have to include the people at MTV ... "

Will his next film have an entourage and 15 producers and actors tossing away thousands?

"Not if I can help it."

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