TORONTO – Eminem's movie debut is a rousing Rocky with rappers -- but that barely begins to describe the astonishing crossover appeal of 8 Mile.
8 Mile had its world premiere as a "work in progress" Sunday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, where a largely under-30 crowd queued around the block in a late-summer heat wave for hard-to-come-by tickets.
Eminem, who is touring, was not on hand for the screening. Nor were Kim Basinger, who plays his mother, or the rest of the cast.
The film was introduced by director Curtis Hanson, who said the color and sound effects were still being worked on.
"But being a little raw is not inappropriate under the circumstances," he said, confessing some nervousness to the packed house, which included directors Joel Schumacher and Sydney Pollack and actors Sharon Stone and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Raw or not, two hours later the consensus was Hanson and Eminem had pulled off a triumph of in-your-face filmmaking.
You can't take your eyes off the controversial white rapper, while the gritty and often hilarious film speaks to an audience well beyond his core constituency of alienated teens.
"I adored him and the movie," gushed one fortysomething woman from New York.
Filmed on crumbling locations in Eminem's hometown of Detroit, 8 Mile (the title refers to a road separating the ravaged city from its suburbs) is loosely autobiographical, depicting the rapper's early struggles.
Abandoning his pregnant girlfriend, Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith moves back in with his hard-drinking mom, who lives in a trailer park with his young sister and her latest boyfriend.
He fights with the mother, the boyfriend and the neighborhood bullies -- but mostly Rabbit dreams of becoming a rap star.
Endlessly teased by the mostly black crowd, the self-described "trailer trash" chokes when he gets a chance to show his stuff.
By the time Eminem finally lets loose with poetic invective in a showdown with a rival -- a finale that Hanson (L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys) cannily shoots like a boxing match -- the audience was on its feet cheering.
Though the screenplay attributed to Scott Silver is a classic uplifting tale of an underdog triumphing over adversity, it's easy to become so involved in 8 Mile that you forget you're watching a movie.
By placing his rage in a social context, 8 Mile represents an attempted image makeover for Eminem, who has been accused of posturing nihilism, misogyny and homophobia.
In one fascinating scene, Rabbit defends a homosexual co-worker who's being verbally attacked by another rapper.
"Enough with the gay jokes," Rabbit says. "Paul's gay -- and you're a [expletive]."
While Eminem's critics may not appreciate such distinctions, 8 Mile is destined to become the most talked-about movie of the season.