There are times in life when there's nothing but linear sameness laid out before us in a never ending parade of days, years and months in which it seems like we're just repeating the same old thing. Thankfully, most eventually realize that the road hasn’t been straight at all. It rose and fell with the trials and tribulations of life and veered to and fro, around mountains and over ravines until you arrived where you needed to be. What does it look like when you finally accomplish a thing that is more indicative of the total sum of your talents than anything you have done before in your life? For Chris Rock it would look something like his new film Top Five, which he stars in, directs and co-wrote along with Scott Rudin.
Just as life often affords us multiple opportunities to right wrongs, Chris Rock has afforded himself the opportunity to direct, write and star in a scripted comedy and have it be a hit. Though he has attempted to do so in the past with such offerings as I Think I Love My Wife and Head of State, we believe Top Five is the most quintessentially Chris Rock offering of all time. Yes, we’re aware that’s saying a lot, but perhaps that hyperbole will give you some sort of an idea as to the content, scope and comic sensibilities of the movie.
Featuring an all-star class of elite comedians of African descent the likes of which have not been seen since Eddie Murphy's Boomerang and Harlem Nights, Top Five stars Rock, J.B. Smoove, Tracy Morgan, Michael Che, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Sherri Shepherd, Gabrielle Union, Leslie Jones and Rosario Dawson, this modern adult comedy is smart, funny, full of wit and delicious ribaldry as well.
Chris Rock’s character name is a standup comedic named Andre Allen. He made it big by portraying a man in a bear suit named Hammy, but now he wishes to put the character that brought him fame to bed permanently and is trying to get make a name for himself in dramatic roles. But things aren’t going so well because the media and his fans simply aren’t taking his career shift seriously and insist on requesting he play the character he’s grown tired of.
Rock portrays Allen as intelligent, thoughtful, introspective and vulnerable to his addictions. In fact, he is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for five years when the movie begins. Gabrielle Union spoke of her own addictions when a member of the press fielded a question regarding personal addictions to the cast.
“I think the addiction for my character, as well as my addiction in real life, is the addiction of wanting to please, to want to be liked and to be validated by other people,” Union candidly stated. “In the film, you have this girl who doesn’t have any discernable talent, any quantifiable talent, except who she is and that people have decided to like her and that people are interested in her wedding. There’s this constant addiction to feed the beast. How do I stay being liked? How do I avoid unemployment, how do I, how do I, how do I. I think that becomes addicting in our industry and in life. I think that’s something everyone everywhere can relate to, wanting to be liked and be chosen. With reality TV we’ve just taken it a step further, to be publicly chosen. In our own lives, we want to be chosen. We want to be picked.”
Ben Vereen makes a cameo appearance in Top Five as Andre’s drug addicted Father. Here’s what he had to say about being drawn to things that could possibly become all-consuming.
“There’s a sermon that says ‘Chose ye whom you will serve.’ You can serve your addiction or you can serve your wellness. You can serve your god or you can serve your devil. That’s a choice, even in this business. We chose to serve because we love this business that we do. I love being on the stage, Chris loves what he does, we all love what we do. We don’t chose the dark shadows, but we go there to bring them back to you to show you what it looks like. But some of us get stuck there, like his father in this movie. He got stuck there and couldn’t get back. So, chose ye what addiction you want today. You can chose the good addiction or you can chose the bad addiction. My advice for you is to choose the good.”
Chris Rock’s directorial hand remains unseen as many of the tenants scenes contained realism that belied the fact that this offering is a scripted piece of work. Additionally, the non-linear manner in which it was shot provided an additional feel of modernity that was enjoyable to watch unfold.
“Woody has been known to jump around and Tarantino has been known to start a film from the middle and you come back to that seen an hour later,” said Rock.
In the film comedian J.B. Smoove stars as Allen’s long-time friend and assistant. Though Smoove’s brand of humor is something of an acquired taste for some, his portrayal was outstanding and provided the perfect counterweight to Andre Allen.
“There is no ‘When did Chris approach me about the project,’ joked J.B. Smoove. “It’s like whatever the hell Chris does he better put me in the project. When Chris calls you about a project he’ll tell you what it is, what he wants from you. But you typically gotta leave the door open because typically when people call J.B. they want the over the top J.B. They want the way over the top J.B. This shows this man’s growth on this particular project. And I didn’t have to play the over the top J.B. I got to be in his character’s corner because I got his back. You can’t have two over the top people because they cancel each other out. I’m happy I got to play a role that this guy wanted me to play, and I got a chance to he helped me. Now my range has increased.”
A recurring talking point amongst the actors and actresses in attendance for the Top Five press conference was Rock’s directorial acumen. Here Sherri Shepherd, who stars as Allen's childhood friend, gives her take on it how he was able to direct so many funny people and have them remain true to their respective characters.
“In my scene there are a bunch of comedians. It’s very hard to corral a bunch of comics. Tracey Morgan, Michael Che, Jay Pharaoh, Leslie and me,” Sherri told reporters. “I give it to Chris because he allowed everybody to have a certain amount of freedom, then corralled everyone back. And that’s a hard thing to do, and he’s intensely focused on the directing aspect of it. That was a surprise because you work with Chris doing standup, then you work with him as a director and he’s very focused and he knows what he wants. Yet, he’s able to get it out of you in that realm of experience. It was an awesome thing.”
“We started off in the movie and it was like ‘Okay, we have what I wrote. Now, let’s just play,’’ said Union. “Let’s just see where the scene takes us, where the moment takes us. What’s great about Chris is he gave us the script and he wasn’t like ‘My baby’s perfect. I’ve got the most genius idea that’s testing off the chart’. He doesn’t assume that. He doesn’t think he has the next Schindler’s List. He’s saying ‘I want to get there. Please give me real feedback.’ He didn’t assemble a bunch of people to kiss (his) ass, basically. He started that way and he continued the whole process that way.”
“You did what he said, and you just kept going, and kept going and then you say ‘Is he gonna say cut?’ And he let you go and go and go and that’s where you found that magic,” added Sherri.
Though it would be a rare press conference indeed if all the actors said they absolutely hated the director, the vibes emanating from the cast on hand were all positive and congratulatory toward Rock and his vision.
“He was like a conductor. It could be noise or it could be music,” said Dawson. “You have all these incredible people together but it might not work. Just because you have all this talent doesn’t mean it was going to work. Just because you have that much talent doesn’t mean it was going to be watchable. And I thought that was something that was really remarkable. He did that, but he was different with everyone. He just knew what everybody’s sweet spot was. When I think of something like that I think of someone like Tarantino, who did that so brilliantly in his career where he would take people we haven’t seen in a long time and get them to do exactly what we want to see them to do.”
In Top Five, Allen’s fiancé, a reality star named Erica Lang, is played by Gabrielle Union, and on the eve of his wedding he is interviewed by a beautiful New York Times reporter with a secret. As is the case with most good stories, interesting character relationships urge the viewer to remain interested in the film. This one is driven by the protagonist’s relationship with three specific characters. Though the story and characters are interesting, Top Five walks a fine line between decency and raunchy. Admittedly, it was enjoyable to see.
“I knew the relationship (with Rosario) would be the heart of the movie, and the relationship with JB and Gabrielle Union would be the heart of the movie. As far as edgy, I knew that I wanted to do what I do and not have it so filtered down. I thought I had a decent idea. That’s why I went to Scott. I’ve been writing movies for years. I’ve never had the balls to go to him with anything else. I thought I kinda had something and was in a good head space to pull it off and this is what we got,” he explained.
“I made this movie just like my standup. I used to have a movie process and a standup process. And I used to say ‘Okay, these are the jokes for the movie’ and I would have a whole nother file for standup. Not this one. I felt like I put it all together. I work shopped my standup. I treated it just like my standup. That was sort of the goal, to do a movie that felt like my standup. Kind of went all over the place. Start here, end there, it could be about relationships and have a political component to it. So, it feels like you can look at this movie, you can look at the standup, and it’s kind of going the same way.”
Sometimes Black comedians seems as dispensable as old school rappers. Oftentimes they go unappreciated because the public knows that, sooner or later, there’s going to be someone else that they may find even funnier than the last guy. A reporter in attendance asked Chris whether he had any overarching concerns about his ability to direct, act and write a project and Sherri Shepherd intercepted it.
“I think fear, when you get into something that’s comfortable and you step out and try to reinvent yourself. You step out of your comfort zone and say ‘I want to take a risk. That’s always hard when somebody knows you in a certain way, to step out and not worry about whether you’re going to be accepted or not. In standup comedy, you’re just putting your heart out there and trusting that folks will come along for the journey.”
“You can’t make anything really good unless you know how much it can suck,” added Rock. “So, I was aware of how much it could suck. So the worse movies tend to have the best people in them because they aggressively suck. There’s lazy movies where you just do the safe thing through the whole movie and it sucks, it’s lazy and you saw it before. Then there’s Howard the Duck where they’re just trying. I knew I was going to try, but luckily we didn’t suck.”
Rosario Dawson explained that she initially had some misgivings about playing New York Times reporter Chelsea. Chris Rock jokingly alluded to having to meet with Dawson numerous times before she agreed to accept the role.
“With Chelsea, I felt like that was the one character that wasn’t perfectly on the page,” said the actress. “I saw where she could potentially be but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t feel like I read her perfectly. Everybody else I felt them and there were certain scenes were her voice needed to be there. But I wasn’t really sure who she was. I couldn’t put my finger on it and that made me nervous. You say that people and they’ll say ‘Yeah sure we’ll fix that’ and you show up and nothing ever happens and you make this movie and people are like ‘Why’d you suck in that movie?’ Plus it’s a comedy. It wasn’t my comfort zone at all.”
Lucky for Ms. Dawson, the lion’s share of the laughs were not hers to produce. She told reporters Top Five maybe the most collaborative project she had ever been involved in.
“This is one of the most collaborative, if not the most collaborative, project that I’ve ever worked on. I’ve had that in a couple of films and I was able to stretch and grow in those films because of it, like 7 Pounds where I was able to really go in. We rehearsed every single scene and we created the what if scene and we created all these scenes and things that needed to be on screen. The blueprint was there, but when we built the house we took it to a whole nother level. That’s what it felt like working on this. The same way I trusted (Gabrielle Muccino) to tune my instrument out there as good as possible but he also let me do my thing. He let me add my influence and make my mark. I thought that was incredible because I usually don’t get to do that in an arena like this.”
A central premise of the film is the character’s love for hip-hop music. However, unlike pass films that have used rap music as plot devices, the viewer is only reminded of this film’s connection to the hip-hop culture when each character is asked their top five rap artists of all time. Hence the film’s name, Top Five.
“I would say this is a movie with a bunch of characters that grew up on rap and we don’t question it. We don’t even call it hip-hop. It’s just music. We treat it like it’s any other music. Most movies they treat hip-hop music like it’s this new thing. Like, only old people call it the N-word. For young people it’s just music,” said Rock.
“Music has always moved society and society’s voice is always in that music. So therefore we are moving with it. What you call hip-hop, we call music. It’s art,” added Vereen.
Throughout the press conference, Chris Rock and company kept it real beyond the clichéd version of the phrase and were showered with adulation and appreciation in return for this work, one that that this writer feels might be his best cinematic offering ever. Chris Rock summed up his latest directorial work thusly.
“I’m not the director, I’m the protector. You write a script and it’s my job and Scott’s job to protect this idea that I came up with. You gotta protect it because there’s nothing worse than a bad comedy. Drama, you actually get credit for completion. I like Gone Girl, you can make nine different versions of Gone Girl that work. But when you’re doing a comedy there’s kind of one version that works. You miss anything to the left, to the right, one second, two seconds, syllables and got nothing. So, it’s my job to make sure all the stuff works.”
We would be remise if we didn't mention cameo appearances made by several of the biggest names in comic history. They don't just appear, the get all up in the mix and become a part of it, making us wish there was more.
Top Five is produced by Jay Z, Kanye West and Eli Bush with Questlove acting as executive music producer. Smart, funny, ribald and thought-provoking, Top Five is a film you can see with a significant other or with a group of friends as the laughs are universal. This is the Chris Rock film so many others aspired to create but fell short for some reason. The Shadow League gives it a solid A-.