Keep it real

Film - Philip Kerr on a cliched hymn to hip-hop and an outdated colonial romp

The trouble with hip-hop, the musical genre that poses as the metacentre of that floating frogspawn called modern youth culture, is that it is profoundly recusant and negative. I say music, but the essence of hip-hop has nothing much to do with melody and musicianship. Indeed hip-hop was a reaction against music - in particular the highly produced, lushly orchestrated disco music of the 1970s. It might reasonably be regarded as a kind of musical Bolshevism, in that it was founded on a few repeated, often nonsensical tropes about liberty and fraternity, and has tended to favour the ignorant and the lazy.

The analogy with Bolshevism looks even more valid when account is taken of hip-hop's inherent gangsterism, and its stranglehold on the hearts and minds of gullible youth - especially gullible black youth. Performing with musical instruments is abhorred in the same way as the kulaks were once persecuted as capitalists for owning a goat or a plough. The only prowess to be celebrated is that demonstrated by an amplified human voice uttering a series of near-unintelligible cliches and banal observations in the same way that young party cadres in China once repeated the assertive, meaningless mantras that were to be found in Mao's Little Red Book.

With nothing in its musical kitty, hip-hop has looked overdrawn for more than a decade; but its spiritual bankruptcy looks proven now that it has received the cultural imprimatur of crumblies such as Seamus Heaney and bandwagon masters such as Alan Yentob, and now become the subject of an anodyne Hollywood studio movie. Perhaps it is a kind of equal opportunities that black film-makers get to prove themselves just as capable of turning out third-rate Hollywood schlock as their white counterparts. But that's the best I can say about Brown Sugar, an unutterably dull, cliche-ridden, When-Harry-Met-Sally romance, over which is papered a badly written hymn to hip-hop.

Two New York yuppies, Sidney (Sanaa Lathan - female) and Dre (Taye Diggs) share a friendship that goes right back to the dump they used to live in when, as children, they discovered men in hooded anoraks and woolly hats on a street corner making strange, possibly drug-related, rhythmic noises, and experienced the Wordsworthian bliss of witnessing the dawn a new golden age of music called hip-hop. Twenty years later, Dre is a record executive who has sold out to the mainstream, and Sidney is an editor on a hip-hop magazine who's "keeping it real", which is to say that she doesn't like the way that Dre has got hung up on the "bling-bling" and the money - ya know what I'm saying?

To give you an idea of how preposterous these characters are, at one point Sidney compares the stars of hip-hop to Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. Oh, yeah? Just try humming a hip-hop hit that isn't based on a sample from someone such as Sting, Aerosmith, Lalo Schifrin or Booker T and the MGs. Can't be done.

Although it is obvious to all their shallow friends, who seem to shop exclusively at Tiffany's, that these two soulmates were made for each other, Sidney and Dre have never "hooked up", and are involved with other, equally shallow partners. The will they/won't they aspect to this story is never in any doubt. Lathan and Diggs try hard, but can do little with such stereotypical characters, and the film looks and feels like a black screen version of a novel by Jackie Collins, only without any of the sex. If ever a script had needed to be left alone in a room with Alastair Campbell for 45 minutes, it was this one.

Written by Hossein Amini and Michael Schiffer, The Four Feathers is no less of a Horlicks than Brown Sugar. It doesn't help that the novel upon which it is based has already been filmed six times, the best of these being the 1939 Zoltan Korda version, unlikely to be improved upon. All the same, I recommend that you go and see the new film, if only to remind yourself of what happens when a colonial army chases an elusive Islamic foe through an inhospitable desert. Not that any of this kind of conscious irony was in the minds of the producers when they shot the film more than two years ago. No more, it seems, was "keeping it real", especially when it came to the film's dialogue. At one point, Kate Hudson, playing the young Victorian lady who is the object of Heath Ledger's dim-witted affections, talks about the traditional English wedding she hopes to have: "I want the whole works," she says. Such verbal anachronisms might help to explain how an $80m movie has so far grossed less than $25m since its release in October 2002. Ouch. As anyone in Hollywood will tell you, it doesn't get much more real than that.

Brown Sugar (12a) and The Four Feathers (15) are on general release