PHILADELPHIA — When Schoolly D, oft name-checked as the godfather of gangster rap, went to see “Scarface” for the first time, he brought the hottest girl on the block, expecting a down-and-dirty make-out session in the balcony of the theater. But like every other woman in the theater, Schoolly’s date sat in her seat with her arms crossed as he and the legion of guys in the audience were completely engrossed by what was happening on screen.
“Every man that walked out of that theater had just that look on his face like when they were a baby and looked at their mother’s eyes. We were walking out like we were zombies,” said Schoolly D, who has referenced the movie in his work and mimicked the famous black-and-white “Scarface” poster of Al Pacino for his 1996 compilation record, “Gangster’s Story.”
“We had to go back three or four times.”
Despite being an overlong (three hours) movie that received mixed reviews and didn’t rake in nearly as much box-office cash as studio suits expected, “Scarface” has reverberated throughout popular culture. Its iconic lines — “Don’t get high on your own supply,” “The world is yours” — are part of the cultural lexicon. Its influence can been seen in film and TV, where it’s both revered (“Miami Vice”) and parodied (“The Simpsons,” “South Park”) as an easy signpost for greed. It’s even been referenced in the political sphere, with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush labeled as “President Scarface.” Its merchandise still sells well, from T-shirts to video games to the novelizations by Philadelphia-based writer L.A. Banks, who passed away earlier this month.
“When the movie came out in 1983, people weren’t used to that kind of gangster movie,” said Ken Tucker, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who’s currently a TV critic for Entertainment Weekly and a music critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air.” “(Director Brian) De Palma wanted to do something that was operatic and this grand artistic statement.
“Critics didn’t think it had any artistic merit,” said Tucker, author of “Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America” (St. Martin’s Griffin, $16.95). “But what regular audiences saw in it was this guy who came from nothing and rose to the top.”
The movie’s release coincided with the rise of hip-hop and the genre’s transformation from party jams to a harder sound, with lyrics that reflected the urban reality, Tucker continued. Groups such as the Geto Boys — whose ranks included Brad Jordan, a rapper who took on the moniker Scarface — and Mobb Deep sampled lines from the movie.
In 2003, Def Jam Recordings released an entire compilation of songs inspired by “Scarface.” A documentary came out the same year, “Scarface: Origins of a Hip Hop Classic,” which featured the likes of Snoop Dogg and Eve talking about their favorite movie.
“Tony was a gangsta before it became a popular term,” Tucker said. “He brought himself up from nothing, so people seized on all of these catchphrases from Oliver Stone’s wonderful script. It was a completely over-the-top movie that you could laugh at — like when Pacino falls into that huge pile of cocaine. But on the other hand, in the beginning when Tony Montana arrives as a Cuban immigrant, it shows the ambition and drive that is talked about so much in hip-hop culture.”
Schoolly D agreed, but also brought up Montana’s fractured take on morality. “It was less about the drugs and more about the hustle,” he said.
The magic of “Scarface” is how it’s sustained its relevance. “I’ve been listening to (the recently released album) ‘Watch the Throne,’ and there’s no difference between the chair Tony Montana sits on and the throne Kanye and Jay-Z are talking about,” Tucker said.
When Tucker spoke with De Palma, Stone and producer Martin Bregman for “Scarface Nation,” they all said that they couldn’t understand why “Scarface” has held up as well as it has.
“Now it has this place in the culture that no other movie does,” Tucker said. “There’s periodically talk of remaking ‘Scarface’ or rereleasing it with a hip-hop soundtrack. But you can’t repeat that.”