The Watcher - Tony Montana, meet P. Diddy
How Scarface shaped hip-hop
__On paper, Scarface has all the makings of a modern American classic. Screenplay by Oliver Stone. Direction by Brian DePalma. And an explosive lead performance by Al Pacino.
But seeing the film again upon its re-release in a special 20th anniversary edition DVD (out this week from Universal), the movie can't quite measure up to its epic reputation. Granted, the story of Cuban refugee Tony Montana, who lands in Miami via the Marina boatlift in 1980 and claws his way up to no-shit drug lord, still fascinates and feels plenty relevant, even if its parable of the American dream gone wrong has been done to death. And yes, the film still offers a treasure trove of delicious scenes and one-liners, from the famous "big pussy" comment to the iconic (and now almost laughable) shot of white-nosed Pacino staring down a mountain of coke.
Yet Scarface now lacks some of the essential gravity it had accumulated in my memory. Maybe it's the cheeseball soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder, which has aged about as well as parachute pants and apparently inspired a whole generation of C-level porn scores. Or maybe it's the slipshod cinematography, which sometimes gives the movie the feel of an overly long Miami Vice episode.
The two-disc anniversary DVD does come with at least one must-see addition, an odd but well-conceived short documentary on the film's lasting impact on hip-hop culture. "Def Jam Presents: Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic" dissects Scarface from the perspective of rap superstars, for whom the film is canonized. Featuring interviews from the likes of Snoop Dogg, Method Man, Nas, P. Diddy, and, appropriately, Atlanta-based rapper Scarface, the MTV-esque short argues that the movie's allegory of a flat-broke anti-hero and his ascension fueled the hip-hop template of the inner-city kid's "come up" through rap music. Suddenly all those pool- sized Jacuzzis and bottles of Cristal you see in hip-hop videos or on "Cribs" make sense.
Though the movie may never have the same knock-your-lights-out impact of The Godfather, it remains an absorbing period piece with unexpectedly far reaching implications.
A friend pointed out a trend in TV/DVD culture I'd never considered. It's a new truism that TV shows, once dismissed as the low-rent cousins of theatrical films, have gained a greater cache in recent years thanks to the release of box-set collections of episodes.
But my source wisely observed how box sets of network shows tend to be better bargains than their cable counterparts. For example, the recent release of "Alias: The Complete First Season" includes 22 episodes and sells for $48.99 on Amazon, or about $2.20 per episode. By comparison, the complete fourth season of "The Sopranos" — which premieres on DVD at the end of this month — includes just 13 episodes and sells for $64.99: $5 per show.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule (so save your letters, please), and the marketing forces at work do make sense. Products from premium channels, less available to the general public, probably should carry a higher price tag.
But at the end of the day is an hour of James Gandolfini really worth twice as much as an hour of Jennifer Garner? Just something to think about.
The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.__