I recently watched Joseph Khan’s battle rap movie Bodied again for the first time since seeing it at Fantastic Fest in 2017. It was officially released this year and is now available to watch on YouTube. I had fun watching it at the festival, but I didn’t fully embrace it and I wanted to give it another go before ranking my favorite films of 2018. *Spoilers ahead*
I had a hard time connecting with Bodied. Despite being a longtime hip hop fan/artist with a history of performing and a background in battling, and despite the movie being written by a battle rapper (Alex Larson aka Kid Twist) and featuring dozens of cameos by actual battle rappers and familiar faces from the battle rap scene, I found much of it to be cringe-worthy. The protagonist is a corny white guy, a nerdy college student from Berkeley, who makes real-life battle rapper/cornball Charron look like white Shaft. His name’s Adam Merkin (Callum Worthy), an obvious outsider with a mop-top, a goofy grin, a sloppy wardrobe, and an inherent inability to properly give someone dap. He’s not a product of the culture, but it fascinates him, and he attends a local battle to do research on his thesis. After the event, while speaking to veteran battle rapper Ben Grymm (Jackie Long) in the parking lot, Adam is put on the spot, and ends up verbally sparring with — and magnificently disposing of — rapper Billy Pistolz, played by the aforementioned real-life battler/freestyler, Charron.
The scene is fun for moviegoers, but it’s ridiculous and it’s an obvious stretch for anybody who’s ever freestyled or written a verse. It’s the equivalent of someone tossing Adam a violin, and despite him having no prior experience with the instrument, busting off a complicated Partita. Adam goes on to be a regular competitor at the battles, and with seemingly little effort, he holds his own against the vets and rises to the top. His genius isn’t explained. We never see him prepping for a battle or coming up with bars for his opponents. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of creative process. The way the movie depicts it, he merely has to make the choice to be unethical, and the rest handles itself. The more unethical he is, the better he does. Who knew battle rap was so easy? The film takes the nuance out of something that is very artful, and reduces it to the musical equivalent of wrestling. It’s a shame because battle rap is so much more than that, but instead of using the film to shine a light on the talent, artistry, and creativity that embodies battle rap culture, the filmmakers use it as an arena for a commentary on PC culture. It’s a weird fit and the message is muddled.
To anyone who’s actually been to a battle or watched SMACK, URL, or King of the Dot, there’s an obvious artifice to Bodied. Yes, there’s a lot of posing and posturing in real life, but the movie really plays it up and it fails to recreate the energy of a real battle. It’s more SNL or The FP than the real thing. The characters feel like caricatures and the crowd’s reactions to the bars – especially in the final battles – are disproportionate to how good they actually are. They would never react that way in real life; it rings hollow and feels manufactured. In the last battle, Adam takes on Megaton, a verbal madman played by West Coast lyrical spaz, Dizaster. At the end, Megaton grabs Adam’s hand and thrusts it in the air, declaring him the victor. It’s eye-roll inducing. Megaton is a character with a persona very similar to his real-life counterpart, and his outrageous ego and thirst for lyrical dominance would never allow him to concede in that fashion. It’s silly and mad corny.
Bodied may provide voyeuristic thrills for the uninitiated, but it’s a mixed bag for seasoned battle rap fans, despite all of the in-jokes that only they will catch. Most of the raps are written by Kid Twist (lets be real, nobody’s favorite) and are delivered in a simple fashion that is easy for the average viewer to digest. There are some nice lines sprinkled throughout and some of the battles are fun, but the overall story is ineffective and I couldn’t get past the extremely goofy, aloof nature of the main character or buy into his sudden mastery of the art of battling.
I didn’t find the ethical observations on battle rap all that interesting, either. Adam’s girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) attends a battle with him and is turned off by its offensive nature. I found her character to be highly annoying. Battle rap isn’t for everybody. It just isn’t. It’s true, a lot of battle rap is offensive by nature. It consists of two or more people wielding words as weapons and hurling insults in a devastating display of poetry and wit, and in many competitors’ eyes, no subject is taboo or off limits. The rappers aren’t offended. Don’t like it? Don’t listen. There are avenues for people who want a more commercialized, watered-down version of battle rap, with programs like Wild ‘n Out or Drop the Mic, but by nature, the real deal thing is going to be uncut and by today’s standards, highly offensive.
Battle rap is one of the last havens where uninhibited freedom of expression is still alive, but that doesn’t mean emcees can say absolutely anything without consequence. When Adam is pressured into battling his pal, Ben Grymm (’cause Ben needs the $), he gets highly personal and crosses the line by bringing up Ben’s daughter and her health condition. He also reveals that Ben is secretly a video game designer. After the battle, Adam’s surprised when Ben cancels their friendship. (Um, duh… you publicly dissed the man’s sick daughter!) He wins the battle, but he loses the friendship and it’s up to the viewer to decide if the movie has a happy ending or not. (Side note- Ben’s an undercover video game designer?? Hilarious. People wouldn’t knock that kind of hustle. Side note 2- This echoes the time New Jersey battle rapper, Arsonal was exposed as a bus driver. It became an ongoing punchline, but it’s not like it killed his career or anything.)
Bodied has its moments, but battle rap fans deserve a film that truly captures its essence and doesn’t feature an outsider who’s not engrained in the culture, rising to the top with minimal effort. A documentary film or series would be ideal. While it’s fun seeing the different cameos throughout the movie, it’s a sad fact that most of the rappers can’t act and the actors can’t rap. They’re better off using actual footage from real battles and interviewing the exciting real-life characters who populate the different battle leagues. It’s cool that a lot of them were involved in this film — you can’t blame them for gleefully taking the free flight to LA and hanging out with their buddies on a movie produced by Eminem — but I wish the story was better and they were used to a better end.
3 out of 5 Nerdskulls
Bodied is now playing on YouTube.
[youtube id=”7xUYUJ69BnE” width=”620″ height=”360″]
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