Sure, we’ve all seen this story before, but that doesn’t hamper this film from being enormously entertaining, with riveting performances, great beats, and poetic rhymes. A talented young rapper, Majo Tonorio (Rodriguez), joins a group of diverse hip-hop artists in putting together an act. She begins to get some traction. A mainstream record company executive signs her and leads her away from the group toward professionals. Musically, as well as in other ways, he tries to homogenize her.
This is a classic tale of pursuing a dream only to be waylaid in the journey. The pursuit of art and the corruption of that pursuit are at the story’s core. Even the rap music setting isn’t new, though the emphasis on Hispanic talent seems unusual (but I don’t know current musical trends).
Central to the success of the film is the extraordinary cast. Rodriguez is amazing, giving a stunning breakout performance that drives the whole film. Veterans Olmos and Phillips both really work their roles. Finally, the revered international music star Jenni Rivera plays the conflicted and contradictory role of Majo’s imprisoned mom. (Rivera died in a plane crash after the film was completed, thus leaving this her solo film appearance.)
Filly Brown has an unusual pedigree. It premiered at Sundance. Appropriately, if somewhat remarkably, it mixes art film qualities with commercial ones. This film offers complex and evocative storytelling set against a real street sense, not to mention an exciting soundtrack. It has a DIY sensibility, both musically and cinematically – not in any amateurish sense, but rather as a celebration of creating art on your own terms.