The music of our youth provides the soundtrack to our lives. Songs can paint the entire cultural landscape of a time and place, galvanize relationships and evoke rose-tinted memories long after the songs have fallen out of the radio rotation. Tracking this metaphor, director Rick Famuyiwa ("The Wood") attempts to use hip-hop history as an emotional map charting the relationship of New York record exec Dre (Taye Diggs) and music journalist Sidney (Sanaa Lathan), best friends since childhood who share everything -- including romantic tension.
From the film's beginning, Famuyiwa clearly harbors more ambitious goals than producing a "When Harry Met Sally"-style friends-to-lovers tale. The first few shots of "Brown Sugar" feature documentary interviews with hip-hop superstars such as De La Soul and Russell Simmons as they respond to Sidney's evergreen first questions in interviews, such as: "When did you fall in love with hip-hop?"
Ambitious, yes. Does it work? Not really. While it's genuinely cool to hear characters talk about early rap records (Sugar Hill Gang, etc.), the constant referencing of hip-hop arcana can alienate even the savviest audiences. We want the love story, even if it tips into murky melodrama, as happens in "Brown Sugar."
But it starts well. Famuyiwa has a way of crafting characters with world views we don't share, but whom we empathetically come to understand. The audience almost gets stuck in the tar-like tension between Sidney and Dre's soon-to-be wife Reese (Nicole Ari Parker) when she reveals all of Dre's defining idiosyncrasies in a bridal-show game.
The stakes are raised when Dre tires of producing hip-hop poseurs and leaves his corporate record job to "keep it real." Reese feels understandably shut out of her husband's life when Sidney is the first to know and the first to fund his dream of starting a small label. Partly drowning in a case of terminal nostalgia, partly in his own self-pity, Dre is director Famuyiwa's thinly veiled protester of a music genre that's become more about capitalism than revolution. It's the ironic fate of most musical movements, but this doesn't keep Famuyiwa from raging against the machine, however transparently.
In pairing Diggs and Lathan, alums from his sophomore picture "The Wood," Famuyiwa astutely casts actors who can produce genuine sparks yet also be the best of friends. For Lathan, however, the role remains an odd choice, especially since she starred in 2000's "Love & Basketball" -- pretty much a carbon copy of the "Brown Sugar" plot, but substituting basketball for hip-hop.
"Brown Sugar" proves itself the better film, if only for Mos Def's performance as Chris, Dre's elusive new talent and eventual confidant. His rant about the end of "Casablanca," in which Humphrey Bogart "punks out" and lets "fine" Ingrid Bergman get on that plane with her revolutionary husband, is worth the price of admission alone. Bogart walks off into the fog heartbroken with another dude, he says, playing the chump for letting her go.
Perhaps so. But Diggs is no Bogart. And would we remember "Casablanca" if Bergman didn't get on that plane and had stayed with Bogey? Probably not. It's the kind of choice that separates romances like "Casablanca" from "Brown Sugar," no matter how well their characters are drawn.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4) "Brown Sugar"
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa; written by Michael Elliot and Rick Famuyiwa; photographed by Enrique Chediak; edited by Dirk Westervelt; production design by Kalina Ivanov; produced by Michael Elliot. A Fox Searchlight release; opens Friday, Oct. 11. Running time: 1:49. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual content and language).
Dre -- Taye Diggs
Sidney -- Sanaa Lathan
Chris -- Mos Def
Reese -- Nicole Ari Parker Francine -- Queen Latifah
Robert K. Elder is a Tribune staff writer.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun