The Breaks (2016) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be R for language, a scene of violence, some drug content, and sensuality (TV airings remove the language and shade the racier parts)
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Afton Williamson, Tristan Wilds, David Call, Wood Harris, J. Bernard Calloway, Russell Hornsby, Evan Handler, Antoine Harris, Method Man, William Jackson Harper, Annalaina Marks, AFRO
Director: Seith Mann
Screenplay: Seith Mann (inspired by the book, "The Big Payback", by Dan Charnas)
Review published January 15, 2016
The Breaks is a VH1 original movie that could serve as a pilot episode that results in a TV series continuation should it prove to be popular. Certainly the lack of a definitive ending would suggest the makers of the film are hoping so. Set in New York City in the summer of 1990, most of the film follows three main characters, Nikki (Williamson, Man on a Ledge), a woman who claims to have given up going to Harvard Law School to make something of herself in the hip-hop record industry, her boyfriend David (Call, Tiny Furniture), a Jewish lover of hip-hop and son of a successful music producer (Handler, Sex and the City) who is stuck at an R&B-format radio station that is adamant against playing any rap music, and their friend DeeVee (Wilds, Red Tails), a DJ and producer looking for that next big vocal talent to put to his beats that will land him a record deal.
Nikki sees nothing but a closed door, but through her uncompromising attitude, manages to land an unpaid internship working for a successful hip-hop label, Fouray Entertainment, scrubbing toilets and running errands hoping to prove her worth to do more. David's on a mission to prove that hip-hop is the way of the future, but his boss (Hornsby, Something New) won't hear him out. DeeVee ends up returning to the hood he grew up in to try to find that raw talent and soon discovers a local thug named Ahm (Harris, "Ballers"), though his volatility puts his burgeoning career in danger, if not his life.
"The Source" writer and former record company exec Dan Charnas' comprehensive, near-700 page non-fiction tome of 2010 detailing some of the early history of the hip-hop business, "The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop", provides the inspiration for many of the characters and situations. It's set at a time of peak creativity for a genre that many were still considering a fad that probably would play itself out within five years. The Breaks is written and directed by Seith Mann, a television veteran who has worked mainly as a director for such popular shows as "Homeland", "The Walking Dead", "Elementary" and dozens of others. This is his first attempt at writing a feature-length film, and while it never quite transcends its made-for-TV look and feel, Mann's obviously someone who knows his subject matter through and through, which gives the pulsating sights and sounds of hip-hop of 1990 the cred it needs to sell to discriminating aficionados of the era.
Being a VH1 production, you expect a good tie-in with the music industry, and it's perhaps the biggest strong suit of the film. With original music and classic hip-hop track selections by legendary hip-hop producer DJ Premier (who also serves as an executive producer), it's authenticity in the era of hip-hop is secure. With its concentration on afrocentricity so key to the music of that era, the film is spot-on in terms of recreating the vibe of the lyrics of the time. Even the music played on the R&B station is classic for its era, with its Bell Biv Devoe, Johnny Gill, Loose Ends, and many others that offered an irony that radio is willing to play artists who dipped into hip-hop to create their sound to appeal to the younger set, but they didn't want to touch the rawness and realness of the real hip-hop that was the hottest beat of the streets at the time.
Viewers nostalgic for hip-hop of 1990 will no doubt get a kick out of The Breaks, even if it's just to relive the music, fashion, and lingo of the "Yo! MTV Raps!" era once again. Beyond this, there's some interesting story threads that develop that offer the film a freshness and uniqueness to separate it from a standard music pic. The production values aren't high, but adequate, and there are a few good character actors in the mix to sell their characters, even if they don't command a lot of screen time. The biggest downside to The Breaks as a film is that it feels every bit as much of a TV pilot for a new series as it was likely pitching itself to be, which means that it's a lot of characters and a lot of build-up that feels like an incomplete film if there's no continuation of the story down the road.
However, even if the road ends here, it's entertaining enough for old-school hip-hop heads to take notice, and will likely inspire a good share of those to dig in their crates to pull out their mix tapes of 1990 to relive the memories of a vibrant and maturing form of music that proved that hip-hop artists were as creative and talented as any other kinds of artists, regardless of medium.
©2016 Vince Leo