The “great singer who can’t get a break in this business” trope earns a desultory, if occasionally tuneful treatment in “Hold On,” a faith-based drama “inspired by true events.”
It plays as preordained, and the emotionally-flat performances, even in roles designed to manipulate, undo it as it covers ground many before have covered.
Sidney Rhodes, played by Micayla De Ette, is introduced as the most gifted singer ever to come out of North Oakland, California. We hear her being interviewed on local radio, a contest victory under her belt and her eyes on that “Make it big in LA” prize in her voice, under the opening credits.
Years later, we see her dealing with the reality of the music business in the showbiz capital. She’s singing jingles, showing off that five octave range for a cut-rate producer with a “studio” in his apartment. His only note to her? “Be less ethnic.”
She’s a singer. She can sound “whiter” if that what he doesn’t have the nerve to request.
She keeps up a video blog, summoning up bubbly enthusiasm for her “fans,” excited for this “big audition” coming up, her “new music.”
But the truth is, Sidney’s nobody’s idea of a modern pop star. She’s aging out of her window to “make it,” and knows it. She’s got talent and training, but she’s Adele-sized, and then some.
“It’s about more than the voice,” a dismissive talent scout mutters, refusing to make eye contact. “What’s special about you?”
“I was meant to reach more people,” Sidney thinks.
Her day job is with a local church, working in the office, making deliveries to the homeless, choral director and singing “worship leader” on Sundays. Her pastor (Luiz Guzman) would love for her to come up with some more traditional fare for the worship band/choir to perform.
That’s what sends Sidney to a local record store, where the owner has no idea who Mahalia Jackson is.
“Is she the one between Janet and LaToya?”
But the irritable clerk there, Vic (writer-director Tarek Tohme) helps her out, before having the final meltdown that’ll get him fired. That sets the stage for this troubled “rich kid,” driving a Mercedes SUV that the record store owner used as his contemptuous nickname (“Mercedes”) to fall under Sidney’s spell.
NOT romantically, he and the screenplay keep insisting (if there’s “fat shaming” here, it’s in moments like that). But he’s the estranged son of a famous producer (Maurice Benard). He finds Sidney’s singing samples on Youtube, swipes some gear from his daddy’s home studio, and badgers her into letting him record her and manage her.
The “douchebag bipolar crazy person” has to convince Ms. “I can’t trust ANYbody out here” to sing him that one song, “written from a hard place,” that captures the scope, range and drama of her Mahalia Jackson-sized voice. And the rest will be history, right? Or at least according to formula.
Flavor Flav is wackily miscast as “the kid’s” probation officer. He’s not an awful actor, but he doesn’t adjust his appearance to look the part — in the least.
Guzman is one of Hollywood’s best character actors, but he’s nobody’s idea of a charismatic preacher. No presence in the pulpit.
Amanda Lillard plays an example of the sort of pop star record companies adore today, Alvaro Manrique is Sidney’s prodigal (junky) brother that she won’t give up on and Mikel Butler plays her supportive younger sister.
Merely introducing the characters points us in exactly the direction all of this is going. It’s going to take some magical performances to bring this predictable tale to life, and nobody here is up to the task.
De Ette is a much more dramatic singer than actress, Tohme has but a wan, single note to play and he can’t make that an interesting one. The shots and editing have an enervated feel, as if everybody involved is just showing up on a shoot they realize is just “Here we go again.”
As with most every film, there’s the germ of a good idea here — a faintly-edgy faith-based music movie with an unconventional leading lady and a story arc that avoids conventional “Star is Born” dynamics. It’s just that nobody involved seems to have a grasp of what they could do with this, other than the most predictable choices.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a scene of violence, thematic elements and some language
Credits: Written and directed by Tarek Tohme. A Film Bureau release.
Running time: 1:46