Turn down for What?!
Joseph Kahn’s hip-hop paean, Bodied, rocks the crowd with the swagger of an old-school B-boy. Bodied takes viewers on a kaleidoscopic tour of battle rap culture, dropping dope rhymes and ill punchlines all along the way.
Bodied wastes no time diving into the movie’s first rap battle — a competition where two rivals stand before a crowd and use rap lyrics to prove who is the best rapper. We learn the rules of battling through two white point-of-view characters. Adam (Calum Worthy) is a rap aficionado and he’s made the cultural use of “that word” the focus of his thesis paper. Adam loves rap in a way that only a person of privilege can. His love for rap is both sincere and academic and for Adam, the “N-word” is the nectar of a forbidden fruit. He also has an uncanny ability to break down rapping on a technical level (Adam visualizes rap that way that Neo sees lines of code inside The Matrix). His girlfriend, Maya (Rory Uphold), is intrigued by the exoticism of urban culture and also repulsed by the violence and misogyny baked into the music.
In the parking lot after the show, a wack rapper challenges Adam’s idol, the grizzled vet Behn Grymm (Jackie Long). Instead, Adam takes his place, eviscerates the challenger, and impresses Grymm who takes Adam under his wing. Most films would tell an underdog story about Adam rising through the rap battle world as an outsider; not Bodied. The film is bursting with other things it’s trying to say. For the rest of the movie, Kahn leaps back and forth between praising and satirizing rap music, outrage culture, liberal guilt, mythical white heroes and so on and so on. Bodied fires off compliments and critiques with the machine gun flow of a Migos verse.
Kahn made a name for himself directing music videos for Destiny’s Child, Justin Timberlake, and Eminem. Bodied proves that Kahn hasn’t lost his visual flair. The film looks like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World meets 8 Mile. Kahn loads scenes with clever visual touches that are dazzling to watch. When a rapper stabs the air with gun fingers a flame bursts from their fingertips like the blast from a muzzle; as Adam sizes up his competition before a battle, a box appears over each shoulder asking whether he should take the high road or the low road before Adam smashes one of the boxes to kick off his verse; when characters are about to battle, title cards with their rap names show up à la Creed. These small flourishes are visual depictions of each battle’s pulsating energy and add visual contrast to the dark and gritty rap battle arenas.
As I mentioned up top, Bodied checks a lot of boxes. It finger wags at rap culture and then gives it props. And it’s more than hip-hop they’re calling out. Even the characters are self-aware. Adam’s girlfriend Maya fits the nagging girlfriend archetype to a tee until she identifies herself as a naggy caricature. Suddenly, Maya has the moral high ground and Adam becomes the dick. Bodied’s attitude towards everything is so flippant it’s hard to know what the movie is sincere about.
Bodied is funny. I’m talking, you better not be sipping on a drink when a joke hits or you might spray it out your nostrils funny. The characters unleash some world-class zingers when they’re rapping and as they stand around kicking it. The subject matter is raw and often offensive, so if you’re already into rap music then you know what you’re getting into. If you’re easily offended, well, the movie makes a statement concerning how it feels about you.
Rapping isn’t just rhyming the last word in a sentence. It’s putting the pieces of word puzzles together in a matter of seconds. It’s matching rhythms, flows, and cadences; crafting stories, insults, and call-backs. It’s an art form you can’t appreciate until you see it done well. You can tell real rappers worked behind the scenes and poured their hearts into crafting authentic battle rap verses. Bodied treats its characters’ extraordinary talents like gifts from the heavens. And it’s easy to understand why people gather around grimy battle rap arenas to watch these lyrical demigods in action.
Bodied takes rap culture and blows up long-held stereotypes (even though it reinforces more). Kahn makes a few clever satirical statements but the film is never as clever as it thinks it is. Bodied isn’t a great all-around film but it is a fun one. The film channels battle rap’s furious energy into your local multiplex and with the right crowd, the experience is electric. Visually creative and lyrically impressive, Bodied serves up eye candy and mind candy.