In 2002, Michael Jackson dangled his baby over a balcony, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Layne Staley died young, Austin Powers in Goldmember was a disappointment, and just about every movie theater I went to was full of people. “A major motion picture” is the kind of phrase you only see deployed ironically, or on yellowed paperbacks at thrift stores. The future of movies as a medium, let alone their quality, has been bleak through the early-2020s. Besides pandemic lockdowns and the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, the public’s preferred delivery system is shifting, just as it did in the 1950s (television), 1980s (cable), and 2000s (DVDs). The 2010s—Netflix specifically—birthed streaming, the innovation that could still kill Hollywood and the popular film industry as we know it.
Besides declining theater attendance, people at large aren’t watching nearly as many movies as they did just five years ago. I don’t think any kind of interactive medium, whether it’s video games or whatever hybrid machine Harmony Korine and Travis Scott are making right now, will take off in the same way that cinema did. Video games have been around for half a century and they’ve never left the realm of the nerds. It will always be a self-selecting and insular community, a private, shameful, onanistic “practice” that should be stigmatized more. I was playing a lot of video games in 2002—Super Mario Sunshine, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Jet Set Radio Future—but I was nine-years-old for most of that year. No one should be playing video games past the age of 13 unless they’re making them or getting paid to play them.
Just a few weeks after I turned 10, Eminem’s “major motion picture” 8 Mile was released. This wasn’t expected to do as well as it did, and I’ll never forget my dad telling my brother and me about the film’s stunning box office performance in a cab in the East Village on Monday, November 9, 2002. Curtis The Silent Partner Hanson directed the movie, which co-starred Taryn Manning and a young Michael Shannon, but I didn’t know any of that at the time. In late-2002, Eminem looked like he was on his way out. It had been nearly four years since he exploded with “My Name Is,” “The Real Slim Shady,” and the epochal Marshall Mathers LP. Earlier that year, he released The Eminem Show with lead single “Without Me,” whose video got heavy rotation on MTV but didn’t measure up to his first two smash records. “Without Me” is a straightforward example of an artist responding to fame and their critics to diminishing returns—there was a sense, in the summer of 2002, that Eminem’s time had come and gone.
There was “Cleaning Out My Closet” and its very literal music video that summer, but by the time 8 Mile came out, I thought, along with many others, that it would underperform like Britney Spears’ Crossroads and signal not the peak, but just after the decline began for Mr. Mathers. Spears had another couple albums and at least one red-letter song (“Toxic”) left after 2002, but by the time Crossroads was released in February 2002, she was as big as she’d ever be. She lost her mind and her hair in 2007, and went into a conservatorship that she just recently got out of. Eminem also had an album in 2004, but that one really didn’t do well (“Ass Like That” was sleepwalking), and by the middle of the decade he was spiraling into drug addiction as well, coming out of it by the end of the 2000s and releasing a pair of albums that revived his career, Rehab and Relapse.
Crossroads and 8 Mile belong to a genre that doesn’t really exist in popular cinema anymore: the pop star gets their own movie, their own origin story. One of the first movies I remember seeing is Spice World, which doesn’t exactly count, since the Spice Girls are playing themselves. Spears and Eminem play versions of themselves whose backstories and implications were widely known to audiences at the time, just as with any Elvis movie or Purple Rain. They enter into situations they’ve already sung about: Prince fighting with his dad, Eminem getting violent with his mother, Spears coming from a dysfunctional home and rising to the top. All they need are their readymade friends: in 8 Mile, Eminem is surrounded by fellow rappers and actors like Anthony Mackie, Mekhi Phifer, and Taryn Manning; in Crossroads, Spears goes on a road trip with her two best friends, Zoe Saldana and… Taryn Manning (she only gets one scene in 8 Mile, a shonda).
While neither of these films ever become more than formulaic vehicles to sell CD’s, they show that Eminem is a natural actor, and Spears isn’t. Not a problem, but again, these scripts are sanded down, predictable, and lacking life, despite the fact that Crossroads is an earnest attempt at an after-school special movie. Shonda Rimes wrote it with a lot of input from Spears, who conceived the project herself. Crossroads deals with teen pregnancy, divorce, racism, sexism, infidelity, and rape in a neat 94 minutes. Its intentions are good, far from misunderstood, and it just doesn’t work as a movie. But a major motion picture? It’s perfect.
But Crossroads didn’t have a real soundtrack—a CD was released, but Spears’ November 2001 album Britney was promoted as the actual soundtrack. Its key singles besides “I’m a Slave 4 U” are all featured: “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” “Overprotected,” and the Joan Jett cover “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.” Crossroads came and went in theaters, and despite being at the height of her fame, I remember MTV doing a very perfunctory job promoting it, and that they seemed relieved when it was quickly out of theaters.
Not so for 8 Mile, which actually spawned the song that Eminem will always be known for above all others, “Lose Yourself.” 8 Mile isn’t an after-school special mélange of hot topics, but a film with a very similar structure to Purple Rain, without any of that film’s glorious ecstasies and eccentricities. The biggest problem with 8 Mile is its structure: the film begins and ends with a rap battle, with Eminem choking at first and triumphing in the end. Well, that ending was basically the video for “Lose Yourself,” which was on the heaviest rotation at MTV in 2002 and 2003. In between the two rap battles is a bunch of bullshit, filler that allows Eminem to show that he’s a natural actor with good instincts and real screen presence, but the film’s inert once you realize it’s going to climax with “Lose Yourself,” not start with it.
As mediocre as I may make these films sound, they’re just another type of popular film that isn’t made anymore because it isn’t needed. Who wants to see the origins of Doja Cat? What about Ice Spice? Dua Lipa? Is there a single pop star under 30 who’s famous enough to warrant a major motion picture? Taylor Swift could’ve a decade ago, but what’s the point? She’s savvy enough to figure out a new way to retell her origin story: re-record all of your old albums.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith