Anthony Anderson shakes off the cobwebs of sitcom acting and goes back to the hip hop hustling of “Hustle & Flow” for “Beats,” a rock-solid Netflix original set on the meanest streets of Chicago.
That would be Roseland, where gunfire echoes in the night often enough to startle but no longer shock.
Anderson brings his easy way with street slang and flippant flair for making a comic put-down sting to Romelo Reese, a “manager” who used to be big, but now works as a security guard at his wants-to-be-ex-wife’s high school.
He’s not much of a guard. But the school is about to lose funding for all the kids who’re truant. So Principal Vanessa (Emayatzy Corinealdi) sends him out door-to-door to round up missing warm bodies.
“I’m a security guard. I secure s—!”
“Then secure your job.”
That’s where he overhears young August (Khalil Everage of TV’s “Cobra Kai”) whipping up beats on his elaborate sound system. No, his mother (Uzo Aduba) says, he’s NOT going back to school. We already know why. In the opening scene of “Beats,” we’ve seen August’s older sister (Megan Sousa), who passed on her love of mixing to him and was his best sounding board, murdered in a shooting that also wounded August.
Gang-related. Teens provoking a gang not from their ‘hood. Stupid. A waste.
That trauma and his guilt gave him PTSD, which has turned him into a recluse, and Romelo’s intrusion and compliments freak the kid out. But being a hustler, Romelo isn’t taking “Get out of my HOUSE!” from Mom seriously.
“So, you going to take a bullet for him? Y’all want me to send my son off to the slaughter?”
He starts the courtship, but only when Mom is at work.
“I’m not supposed to talk with you!”
“Man, Harriet Tubman wasn’t supposed to run. Doesn’t make it a bad idea.”
Romelo “used to be big,” but something awful went down. He’s still got a good ear, still connected enough to a record label protege (Paul Walter Hauser of “I, Tonya”), still able to sweet talk a gang banger with a studio (Dave East) out of a little recording time.
The kid taps his forehead nervously and furiously whenever he’s stressed. He listens to the “I’ll make you the most famous 17 year-old in Roseland!” pitch. Sure. OK. But only if he can do it all from his mom’s apartment.
Music video (and the movie “ATL”) director Chris Robinson infuses Miles Orion Feldsott’s salty script with a vivid sense of place. Chicago rappers (Dreezy plays even more colorfully-named Queen Cabrini) are scattered into the cast, and the parties, dank pool halls and school corridors ground the picture in geographical and gritty reality.
“Lock-down drill — attendance is mandatory” announcements underscore the school scenes, newscast accounts of shootings provide a backdrop that shows every life there touched by violence.
Ashley Jackson brings judgemental fire to Niyah, the girl who might help lure August out of his safe space.
Evan J. Simpson gives a scary edge to his turn as a former running mate who had a hand in precipitating the violence that broke August’s life and ended his sister’s.
Young Everage suggests fragility and naivete as August, the sort of boy cowed by Niyah’s furious “This is CHICAGO” blast of misguided tough-love about him phobias and fears.
And Anderson was born to play Romelo, a broke man brought low but still remembering the good times and willing to do most anything to get them back. Watch Romelo play the “When I got back from Iraq” card with August’s war-widow mom, hear him plead “I’m gonna be the man you want me to be” to his near-ex and serve up a little “old head, old habits” old school advice to the kid about to overproduce a killer beat.
“The hit is never when the producer puts the entire kitchen sink in there.”
The plot is seriously conventional, even though it packs more darkness into the third act than one might expect.
The music by Siddhartha Khosla and a sampler of local talent is woven through the picture with care.
“Beats” might not have made much noise on the big screen. But it’s just the sort of modest-ambitions winner that Netflix can make instead of those pricier sci-fi bombs that show the service is still years away from competing with the theatrical studios in that genre. This works, and a TV actor in a “Black-ish” rut sometimes makes it sing.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, profanity
Cast: Anthony Anderson, Khalil Everage, Uzo Aduba, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Ashley Jackson, Megan Sousa, Paul Walter Hauser, Davcve East, Evan J. Simpson and Dreezy
Credits: Directed by Chris Robinson, script by Miles Orion Feldsott. A Netflix Original.
Running time: 1:50