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No Rap on Eminem: He Gets His Shot, His Opportunity, and Doesn’t Let It Slip

Times Staff Writers

After lunch at Neiman-Marcus, Jane Ann Kuster, 73, moved into the dark confines of the Edwards Big Newport theater Saturday, accompanied by her friend and neighbor Armida Persello, 72. Kuster wanted to introduce her friend to Eminem, starring in his first movie, “8 Mile,” and to witness his attempt to travel the distance from much-denounced rapper to mainstream movie star. Evidently, the journey was a success -- and financed not just by the fans you might expect. Powered by strong reviews in major newspapers, a hit song on the radio and a relentless ad campaign, the movie grossed an estimated $54.5 million over the weekend, far higher than expected. Universal Pictures reported that most of the “8 Mile” weekend moviegoers were under 25 and white -- and, intriguingly for a rap movie, female -- but almost a third were over 25, like Kuster and Persello in Newport Beach.

Until Sunday, filmmakers had been unsure whether middle Americans would be willing to spend two hours in the dark with Eminem, whose stated goal has been to "[expletive] the world off.” But as the septuagenarians demonstrated, many welcomed him with open arms, some applauding perceived messages of authenticity, hard work and personal responsibility in the film. “He’s a doll,” Kuster said. “What you see is what you get. I don’t think he puts on any pretense.”

It made for some interesting weekend movie lines, and nowhere was the people-watching more fascinating than in the children and parents at theaters together. Many baby-boomer parents were already fans themselves. Deedee Williams, 50, founder of a Beverly Hills global consulting biotech company, said she had to talk her 14-year-old son, Matt, into coming along.

Despite its rating, bestowed for “strong language, sexuality, some violence and drug use,” others found positive messages for kids in the movie. “From the ghetto, he ended up making something of himself. I think that’s a positive thing in our society today,” said Santa Ana psychologist Robin Carr, who brought two children and a friend, ages 12 to 15. Although he “cussed too much,” he was also “trying to make ends meet,” she said.

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Eminem is the first white artist to become an airplay staple on rap radio stations in major markets. In a recording career of just three albums in four years, he has established himself as the best-selling solo rap artist ever in a genre that has been almost exclusively defined by black artists. The movie has a potent hit song in it, “Lose Yourself,” which has been one of his biggest radio hits. The “8 Mile” soundtrack also debuted last month at No. 1 on the U.S. album charts. A second soundtrack, this one featuring the music from the rap “battle” scenes in the film, is in the works.

Despite critics who champion him as a relevant and clever cultural provocateur, Eminem has been assailed by others as a loutish, foul-mouthed rapper. For much of America until now, Eminem is best known for the protests against him before the Grammys in 2001, or perhaps the courtroom photos from his brushes with the law. His lyrics about women and gays have drawn protests and his albums are brimming with graphic language and violent imagery. Unlike Eminem’s CDs, there is no “clean” version of “8 Mile” available for the younger teens who follow his music.

The film, directed by the critically respected Curtis Hanson, tells a classic Hollywood tale of “underdog makes good” by describing the struggle of a white boy trying to make it in the black, urban rap scene of impoverished Detroit. Unlike his mother’s boyfriend, he has a job -- making steel bumpers at a stamping plant. Another message in the film is that connection in art and class can overcome race differences.

The R rating didn’t hinder the movie’s popularity, said its producer, Brian Grazer.

“The message of the movie is so positive that I think parents are just looking the other way,” Grazer said. “Parents felt they could kind of get away from those [other hip-hop films]. But with Eminem, it’s in their face and it forces them to understand the language.”

Indeed, theaters nationwide were packed. It was the second-biggest opening weekend for an R-rated movie, behind “Hannibal,” which made $58 million its opening weekend in 2001. “8 Mile” averaged more than $22,000 per screen; $10,000 is considered good in the industry.

At Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade on Friday night, unlikely moviegoers included people such as Cynthia Webber, who accompanied her 33-year-old son, Hugh, to the movie. “I think it’s a great story -- how he came up out of a really tough life,” she said. “And also his music is really good. People don’t expect someone my age to like his music, but I do.”

Of course, not everyone had an obliging parent as an escort. Outside the theater, kids under the admissible age of 17 milled about, working their charm to persuade any adult to accompany them or buy their tickets. AMC theater workers vigilantly checked IDs at the door and turned away a desperate girl who pleaded in vain that she’d just forgotten her identification.

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Some parents said they wanted to accompany their children in order to better understand that generation’s tastes. “I’m not a fan at all. I’ve listened to the lyrics and some of them are terrible,” said Beverly Levitt, a management consultant from Sherman Oaks who was weekending in Newport Beach with her husband, Barry, and their 14-year-old daughter, Lindsey, who had been looking forward to the film for months. “But I’m a fan of my daughter. I’m trying to understand her by watching this.” Barry, a retired communication engineer, said he was curious to see how the rapper did as an actor.

Lindsey, observing from several feet away, said the enthusiasm of her parents, both 59, put her in a bind. The only reason she agreed to go out with her parents is that they were far enough from home. “In L.A., I wouldn’t be caught, like, dead,” she said. Still, she planned to sit by herself.

The crossover appeal of Eminem-as-movie-star appears to run counter to the nature of a youth-oriented culture that, by definition, appreciates popular music that upsets adults. But Lindsey explained, “I don’t like him out of rebellion. I just like him.” Some parents with children were taken aback at a hot sex scene between Eminem’s character and his girlfriend (played by Brittany Murphy). Some also felt uncomfortable with violent scenes witnessed by his terrified younger sister.

Though laced with profanities, the movie is tame compared with the rapper’s concerts, where he unleashes torrents of obscenities. “The concerts are far raunchier than anything in this movie,” said Stephen Hill, vice president of music programming and talent for Black Entertainment Television.

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“His audience is expanding,” said Carson Daly, host of MTV’s “Total Request Live,” who had Eminem on his show Friday. “For people who don’t know him, people who say, ‘What is this Eminem guy all about?,’ they’ll go see this movie, and answering that question is what this movie does best.”

Eminem could not be reached Sunday. In an e-mail interview with The Times last month, he said he had set out to make a serious movie, not a comic or hit-driven goof. “The movie marked the direction I wanted to go in, which allowed me to see if I can really act and to document the scene in Detroit that I came from,” said the rapper, whose real name is Marshall Mathers III. As for a possible second act as an actor, he said: “I’m going to take it one step at a time. I’m not interested in becoming a full-time actor anytime soon, but if the right opportunity comes along, who knows?”

Back in Newport Beach, Jane Ann Kuster came out of his debut movie and said she hadn’t quite understood every part of the film, but she never pays any attention to the swear words anyway. “It’s the music that’s so great. I loved the way he takes notes in every little corner of the paper. It’s fantastic.”

Her friend, Armida Persello, said she was shocked in a way, but enjoyed the movie nonetheless. For her, the only thing lacking in the rags-to-riches story was the riches.

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“I was hoping he would end up rich and help his mom and the little child,” she said.


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