I've been a TIFF Midnight Madness fan for fourteen years, and what a glorious run it has been. There's no other audience like it in the world -- a couple thousand rabid fans assembled at midnight half-drunk on pure genre love. All this time it has been helmed by Colin Geddes, who has curated an extraordinary parade of extreme films.
But the opening of the 2017 Midnight Madness was a special occasion. Toronto International Film Festival creative director Cameron Bailey was on hand to hand the torch to Peter Kuplowski, the new director of Midnight Madness. Peter came out to wild applause and explained that given the controversial nature of BODIED, this could well be a one-film stint as head of Midnight. Apparently director Joseph Kahn had asked on twitter which film festival would be brave enough to show BODIED. Obviously, Toronto Midnight Madness was the answer.
BODIED ranks in my top 5 all-time Midnight Madness films, joining the ranks of things like ONG BAK and COLOSSAL. On the surface, it seems like just a fun rap battle film. But the themes it explores are much deeper, and quite timely, including who can say what about race, and how much we can participate in a culture if it isn't traditionally our own.
The main character here is Adam, brilliantly cast as Disney Channel star Calum Worthy, a white college student from Barkeley working on his thesis about rap battles. He's contantly overshadowed by his father, who's a professor there, played by Anthony Michael Hall. Adam is a little nerdy, and he and his girlfriend stick out like a sore thumb in the mainly Latino, black, and Asian crowd in the warehouses where the battles are taking place. As he explains how it all works, his girlfriend gets more than a little peeved at some of the insults and misogyny on display. In the parking lot after the event, there's a bit of a scuffle, but in the process, Adam shows that he's awkward, but surprisingly adept at rapping, considering that, well, he's a nerdy white boy. Adam's idol Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) takes notice, and Adam is starts to be welcomed into the culture.
I won't give away any more of the plot, but let's just say that nothing goes smoothly. And before you criticize the film as yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing, consider a few things. The major theme of the film is: can this kid even do this? What can he say, and does that cross the line. He's also part of a pretty large ensemble cast of a diverse array of backgrounds. And of course this isn't a Hollywood financed movie anyway.
Bodied was written by Alex Larsen, aka Toronto battle rapper Kid Twist. He certainly knows the scene, as does director Joseph Kahn, who grew to fame directing Eminem (and Taylor Swift) videos. The film is full of battle rap stars, notably Dumfoundead and Dizaster, who absolutely deliver on the acting front with characters that won the audience over. All this street cred adds up to a movie that feels absolutely authentic, which is necessary to pay off the comedy. It is both a love letter and a satire of the battle rap scene, and mixes the profound and absurd so thoroughly that sometimes it is hard to tell which is which.
The first half of the film has all the over the top insanity of a professional wrestling match, with each battle introduced with title cards. I honestly need to see it again, because some of the rap lines (called "bars" in battle rap lingo) are so densely written that while the audience was laughing and cheering a half-dozen references would go by.
The brilliance of BODIED is that one second you're cheering a brutal takedown of a character via a barrage of insults, and then the next you're questioning whether or not that makes you a bad person. But the real magic is that it never comes across as preachy. There are no easy answers -- the director seems content to just throw every possible argument out there, expressed via characters with a wide range of viewpoints, and then let the chips fall where they may. Nothing is wrapped up in a bow, which works toward the overarching theme that people shouldn't be telling each other what they can and can't say.
That isn't to say there aren't consequences to people's speech. The consequences here are so dire that the second half of the film takes a relatively dark turn. It's a bold move, but it gives what would otherwise be a forgettable comedy some real gravitas. The ending wasn't really what I expected, and that's what elevates BODIED from fun to great.