Joseph Kahn’s Battle Rap Comedy Is Game Changing
As I rocketed to my feet to take part in a standing ovation for director Joseph Kahn after Bodied, my cheeks were wet from 90 straight minutes of laughter. Perhaps one of the very funniest films I’ve ever seen, Bodied is first and foremost a comedy, but also speaks truth to this generation in a prophetic way.
Kahn is a lively and divisive figure on Twitter, which is perhaps where I am most familiar with him. Not yet having seen his last film Detention, nor really any of his music videos, all I had to go on was a theatrical, non-ironic viewing of Torque back in 2004. There’s no possible way any of that could have prepared me for the singular brilliance of Bodied.
Bursting with visual creativity, furious editing, on screen graphics, and a frenetic energy, Kahn’s filmmaking style adds a layer of movie magic atop the profoundly human craft of free expression that is battle rap. All of Kahn’s flair and style would be meaningless, of course, without a razor sharp scalpel of a script (also by Kahn and rapper Alex Larsen aka Kid Twist), or a game cast loaded to the brim with diverse and jaw dropping talent that all but assures they’ll go places after this film. Fortunately, Kahn has pulled all of these key elements together to create a masterful banger that, if given the proper platform (please give this a wide release, Hollywood) could legitimately heighten our societal discourse and shed light on the need for representation and a little less online outrage all at the same time.
A substantial percentage of the runtime of Bodied is lyrics (referred to as bars) and rap performances. It never feels like a musical, rather more like a martial arts or boxing film with title cards and scrimmages leading up to the ultimate battle loaded with heightened stakes. The lyrics (and performers that deliver them) are one of Bodied’s key secret ingredients. Boiling over with cultural references, offensive stereotypes, raw truth, creative energy, expressive freedom, and sheer spontaneous brilliance… these bars will make you want to jump out of your seat and cheer, if you can stop laughing long enough to do so.
So the entertainment value, pacing, energy, and vibe are all there. If Bodied were simply the Rocky of battle rap movies (kind of like Bodied producer Eminem’s 8 Mile was), it’d probably be a top tier 2017 release. Audiences would feel good, and come walking out of theaters without any sense of conviction, nay, indictment.
But Bodied aspires to cut us down to our core and expose our melting pot; rubbing our faces in the vacuousness of the directions we are heading in.
Our lead character is Adam (Calum Worthy). He’s a member of the privileged elite: a white male at Berkeley studying something along the lines of “Use Of The N Word In Battle Rap”, attending battles as research and eating up every minute of it. Local battler Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) encounters Adam after a battle, answers some of his questions, witnesses Adam’s impromptu first attempts at battling, and begins to take him under his wing. All the while Adam’s girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) lives her own Berkeley experience, questioning and challenging Adam as he befriends a new crew (a diverse cast of characters from all types of races and genders), gets swept up in the battle rap scene, and learns absolutely all the wrong lessons in the process.
You see… in Rocky… we like Rocky. That’s kind of the whole idea. The universality of Rocky is inspirational in that all of us can reach down, find the fire in our bellies, and go the distance. Adam is just kind of a dick. But he’s just as universal. Deep down all of us (and certainly all of us white males) can see the self aggrandizing, oblivious, heartless need to be the best, to be legend, and to scorch the earth and lay claim to manifest destiny to achieve it. We do it all the time, and we see it all around us.
What Bodied is able to do is take us on a rap battle journey that could single handedly break this infectious niche out into the mainstream, and simultaneously lay bare the complexity of racial dialog (not to mention simply living together on this planet appropriately) facing us today. It’s a marvel of a movie that gives voice to the underheard. A role swapping rap battle between an Asian man and a black woman is particularly beautiful and speaks to the hope of a future where we can reach across lines and barriers and walk in each others shoes. And a final emotional battle between our protagonist Adam and the actual beating heart of the film Behn Grymm makes no bones about how far some of us with a chance at power or immortality will go to decimate everything to grasp hold of it.
Each character of Bodied is important. They are representing a perspective, a way of thinking or being, and they’re portrayed with biting insight by writers and actors alike. There are times throughout the film when you’ll cheer, laugh, or cry along with virtually every perspective represented within. In the end, however, Bodied champions free expression, and upholds as even more important the bonds and value of genuine, in the trenches, lived-in friendship. Free speech isn’t what’s going to save us. Genuine, across the aisles, in sickness and in health friendship just might. But those who are willing to seize power at the expense of community are all around us, and within us, and Bodied exposes that reality bare.
Joseph Kahn has crafted a furious, dynamic, entertaining mouthpiece for our times with Bodied. Some will be offended. Some will be convicted. Some shamed. Some will learn all the wrong lessons, just like our protagonist. Most will laugh, be entertained, and bang their heads to mind-blowing creative energy. At worst, Bodied will entertain audiences in unique and timely ways. At best, Bodied has the potential to push forward not only our racial dialog in America, but to genuinely inspire relationships across perceived and real dividing lines and encourage us forward to a better future. Yes, this kind of sweeping language in describing a battle rap comedy is appropriate and not hyperbole. Watch it and tell me you disagree.
And I’m Out.
Bodied won the Audience Award at Fantastic Fest 2017. And rightfully so.