Bodied is the sort of film that would give Walt Disney a heart attack. It’s nasty, close-to-the-bone, doesn’t really have a genre (at a push you could probably argue that it’s an underdog comedy but in some ways it’s also kind of the opposite too) and worst of all, it’s about battle rap. Not the 8 Mile/Lose Yourself, drop-the-mic-style battle rap either. Even though, rather ironically, Eminem is listed as a producer, there’s nothing commercial about the rapping here at all. If James Corden tried to rip-off the bars these real-world artists were “spitting”, he’d end up in prison.
But the very fact that Bodied can’t be put in a box and easily sold is by far its strongest feature; Joseph Kahn’s self-funded, ludicrously ahead-of-itself third feature is an absolute treat on all fronts. A scathing satire on liberal self-shaming, contemporary racial and political stereotypes, and a bunch of other long-worded, highly-academic themes you’d never expect to take centre-stage in an underground hip-hop movie directed by the guy who shot every Taylor Swift video under-the-sun.
Produced and co-written by actual North American battle rappers, Bodied also isn’t the sort of film you can sum up easily in a few sentences. On the surface: Calum Worthy stars as the privileged son of an esteemed college professor, who willingly throws himself into the battle-rap scene, as a way to research a dissertation on poetry and “the ’N’ word”. Taken under the wing of underground superstar Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), he soon starts to compete himself, rising quickly through the ranks, and leaving whatever cultural lines in the sand both he and the audience (on both sides of the screen) had drawn, very much in the dust. But what starts as an underdog culture-clash quickly shifts into an all-out take-down of just about every single norm in the Hollywood rule-book.
Worthy’s Tobey-Maguire-esque nerd Adam both rallies and unsettles in equal measure, proving as hard to pin-down as the film itself, and the supporting cast of mostly unknown artists and comedians are a clever mix of the soulful and the stupid. There’s no obvious antagonist, no clear climax and definitely no redemption on offer either. The script ties itself in ribbons early-on with a few too many proud-of-itself wise-cracks (“We don’t need Macklemore, we need Mackle-less”) but the deeper we dive into the scene itself, the more the storytelling shifts into a much more anarchic and exciting energy that thankfully sees us through all the way to the absolute kicker of a close.
Kahn’s as quick-witted as they come, and while the constant tonal shifts and seriously edgy humour certainly aren’t for everyone, those who do appreciate its boldness will find an awful lot to shout about. It’s a particularly tricky film – by the time you’ve worked out where it’s going, Bodied’s already lapped you several times and changed direction – and it’s guaranteed to bite harder when seen with a decent crowd (fingers-crossed chosen backers YouTube give it a big-screen release). But one thing’s for sure come the end: you’ll never have seen anything like it before, and that’s a guarantee.
Bodied was screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2018, and will be released on YouTube Premium later this year.