Love Beats Rhymes is more of a showcase for star Azealia Banks than director RZA, but his influence is still felt in this formulaic hip-hop romance. RZA made the transition from Wu-Tang Clan to film scores, acting, and directing (The Man With the Iron Fists), and his second feature exudes the generosity of an experienced artist putting a young musician in the best possible light.
Banks’s first film isn’t a self-congratulatory star vehicle: She fully explores the vulnerability of her confident character Coco Ford, a Staten Island rapper whose perception of language is challenged in the poetry class of Professor Nefari Dixon (Jill Scott), and whose understanding of love gets redefined by teaching assistant Derek Morris (Lucien Laviscount).
Screenwriter Nicole Jefferson Asher (Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart) doesn’t see anything wrong with academic liaisons that would result in real-life expulsion and dismissal, and she bases the film’s central conflict on the specious categorization of poetry as truthful high art and rap as the low art of braggadocio. RZA stages both rap battles and slam poetry performances as soaring celebrations, but Love Beats Rhymes deflates during the scenes when Asher’s simplistic distinctions (ambition versus loyalty, personal expression versus commercial viability) drive Coco’s actions.
British-born Laviscount comes off as a hesitant outsider among the film’s powerhouse performers, especially Banks (he’s the Max Beesley to her Mariah Carey), but Derek powerfully influences Coco, who’s hesitant to adopt female role models. Coco’s singular voice was formed in isolation, only blossoming when she felt truly connected.
Love Beats Rhymes
Directed by RZA
Codeblack Films (Lionsgate)
Opens December 1, AMC Empire 25