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Interview: Patti Cake$ director Geremy Jasper

1 September 17 interview: Gemma E. Finch

We caught up with director Geremy Jasper to talk about his new project, Patti Cake$

Patti Cake$ begins with a surreal hip-hop trope-saturated fantasy in which our protagonist is a rap legend.  Mercilessly, the alarm cuts through this robust dream, made fragile by reality.  Patricia Dombrowski, aka Patti, aka Killa P (Danielle Macdonald) silences her flip-back phone alarm on the side table in her small and chaotic bedroom in New Jersey, with posters of famous rap artists covering the drab walls – a visage that is light years away from the epic scene we were just confronted with.

The juxtaposition of these two starkly different visuals is both jarring and heart-breaking with implication, and is a continuous visual device director Geremy Jasper uses to convey the cavernous difference between Patti’s life and Patti’s aspirations.  “Most of the film is shot in a style that I wasn’t used to working in, which is much more vérité, almost docu-style, handheld, raw…intimate…” said Jasper, “but then there’s also these psychedelic flights of fancy that Patti goes into, and that’s where my background in music videos really comes out of hiding.  The film is a combination of two styles, but they work together, which is exciting.”

“The film is about a 23-year-old dreamer stuck in the blue-collar suburbs of New Jersey, which is in the shadow of New York City.  She has this intense desire to get out of her town, she’s stuck.  She has the soul of an artist, and is in love with hip-hop, and is an aspiring rapper.”  Getting ready for the day, Patti looks at her reflection in the mirror.  My life’s fucking awesome, she whispers with spirited insistence.  A beat drops and this line of dialogue is the repeated rap lyric, played over the next few shots as mini anthem, becoming ironic in the following scenes as Patti, and the audience, faces the reality of her not so fucking awesome life. 

I just remember kind of this melancholy depression, and I was always trying to get back to that sensation in the film

The film is deep set in reality – there are highs and lows for Patti, with the highs often punctuated by abrupt realities that leave you feeling disenchanted, but hope is never too far away.  Patti leaves the house for work – she confidently strides down the centre of the empty road with her Walkman, and the psychedelic flights of fancy return as we see her begin to levitate over the street and physically rise above her existence.  This scene cuts sharply to a car honking its horn behind her, interrupting her reverie like the wake-up alarm.  The good times are restrained.  It is a representation of early life that was personal to Jeremy,  “I was always trying to capture a very particular ache I had at that time, at that age, Patti’s age, and I just remember kind of this melancholy depression, and I was always trying to get back to that sensation in the film.”

Whilst working nights in a rundown bar, Patti watches her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), who gave up her music career to raise Patti alone, singing karaoke.  “It’s a lot about Patti as the new generation trying to break the bad habits of these other two generations,” said the director.  The two women have an uneasy relationship due to Barb’s bitterness at this fact; it is fractured further when Patti reluctantly reveals her rap artist aspirations later in the film and is mocked by Barb.

Patti never berates her mother too harshly – she silently observes Barb’s struggle and knows how crushing it must be to soar so close to success, as Barb did with her band ‘Barbwire’, and have it taken away by life’s unrelenting responsibilities.  This is palpable when Patti watches Barb singing karaoke - an 80’s ballad, her genre of choice - from her position behind the bar, a look of empathetic sorrow and a tangible blend of pride and shame etched on her face.  Danielle Macdonald, in this small moment, shows why she is perfect for the role of Patti.  “We trained for two years, she worked her ass off," recalls Jasper.  "We both just loved the project so much that she was willing to put the time in, not knowing if it was ever going to happen.  I would send her a classic hip-hop track and she would learn how to perform it.  Then she would record it into her phone, send it back to me in one go and I would critique it and send notes.”

She not only had to be musically convincing, but she had to have the required acting skill to endear an audience to a character and a story which, at its core, is about a universal human experience, exclusive from that of just rap music.  The abruptness returns, as this touching scene cuts sharply to Patti holding Barb’s hair back while she vomits into the toilet, drunk.

Patti is encouraged to follow her dream by her amateur R&B crooner friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) who is constantly reminding Patti of her talent.  As well as enthusiastically trying to orchestrate their rise to fame by organising local recording sessions or live performances, he pushes Patti into a late-night rap street battle with the local haters who taunt her with the nickname Dumbo.  It is in scenes like this where we see how two years of fierce practice have made Macdonald into an adept rap artist, as she gives the haters a rap masterclass full of witty lyrical put-downs to put them in their place.

Patti’s other support is her Nana (Cathy Moriarty), who is frail and unwell.  Patti touchingly writes her limericks and performs them to her, which further highlights the true artistry and poetry of rap music to those who thought it was devoid of artistic finesse.

On the film's humour, Jasper said, “I love words, playing with language, I love bending it, I love deconstructing it, I love telling jokes or having riddles.”  Nana is one of these sources of comic relief in the film.  One such scene is when Patti discovers where a reclusive, monosyllabic but talented, industrial punk artist she spotted at a small local show lives.  Glimpsing him on his bike as she visits her Grandpa’s gravestone with Nana, Patti - like Alice going down the rabbit hole - follows him down a graffitied tunnel to his studio in a shack in the woods, leaving an asleep Nana in her wheelchair outside.  This high-tech studio is a wonderland to Patti and Jheri, providing the tools to record their music.  After Nana awakes, she is comically roped in to the making of the music, providing the ‘B,P and J’ motif that forms the foundation to a new beat, in her distinctly gravelly and cynical-sounding voice.

The artist Patti sought out is Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), and unlike his stage name suggests, he is a softly spoken, sensitive and deep-souled musician who tells Patti not to worship “false prophets” – his unique way of telling Patti that caring what people think of her is her only flaw.  “Patti and Basterd complement each other personality-wise – one has a big mouth and one doesn’t talk at all, but at the same time there is a common denominator,” Jasper says of the pair's dynamic, “they’re both sensitive souls, and there’s a connection there of being artistic or creative and living in a place that doesn’t really nurture that.”  Their relationship in the film is touching – Athie’s performance as Basterd is expertly restrained.  He conveys so much with just a stare.

The film has many jubilant moments, moments of hope to make the abruptness palatable to the audience.  One of which occurs near the end of the film, and puts Patti’s relationship with her mother on a more even footing, and addresses the main theme of Patti’s journey to rap stardom.

I would go to hardcore shows back in the day and there’d be black kids going to see hardcore bands, just like there’d be white kids going to see hip-hop

Race is an issue that is broached tentatively in Patti Cake$.  Firstly, when Barb is once again drunk and wearing a fetishized PVC orange jumpsuit for a karaoke performance, Patti asks her why doesn’t she act her age.  Barb retorts with “`Why don’t you act your race?”.  When Patti finds work at a catering company, she finds herself working at the mansion of OZ, the famous black rapper she has looked up to all this time.  She is tasked with serving him a drink on her own, and she takes a chance and raps while he sits on the sofa, his back to her – she gives it her all, a moment of tense hope.  Summoning her, OZ speaks.  He breaks Patti in two with his words, telling her she doesn’t have a culture, and is a white girl stealing someone else’s because she doesn’t truly know who she is.  He stubs his cigar out on the CD of her music she placed on the table, and this act firmly places him as the antagonist.  We are invited to confront the question – should there be exclusive ownership of a music genre?

This film very much dismisses the idea that to enjoy and envelop yourself in something outside your own culture - at least with regards to music - is problematic, with the characters who say otherwise – Barb, OZ - being characterized as bitter and self-important.  Cultural appropriation is dismissed indirectly as a problematic concept that condemns individuals for appreciating cultures outside of their own – Patti is white but is not defined by this, and it is her own set of life circumstances that have led her to love rap music.  She has no malicious intent to take the music away from where it originated due to her intense admiration of its roots.  “I would go to hardcore shows back in the day and there’d be black kids going to see hardcore bands, just like there’d be white kids going to see hip-hop,” recollects Jasper, “music is music, people love what they love.”

Perhaps some will say this is a problematic film due to this – I, for one, feel it is not a film that seeks to ostracize anybody.  Any moral commentary is secondary to the main purpose of the film – to show an underdog’s life in New Jersey as she seeks to pursue her creative ambition.  The film is the simplification and anti-politicization of likes and dislikes – it is about loving what you love with no apologies, and not confining yourself to the expectations of others, regardless of race, gender or class.  It is about the pure freedom and joy that music can give people, if people give others the freedom to express it.

Patti Cake$ is like a British summer.  One moment you’re basking in the sunlight, maybe you’re saying it won’t last, and mostly, you’re right.  The clouds conceal the sun, its glare now present only when you shut your eyes, that brilliant bright reminder obscuring your vision, your only memory, as it starts to rain, and that light fades to a memory - but the sun will come out again.

In response to my asking what Jasper would want the audience to come away with after viewing Patti Cake$, the director responded, “These are dark times, especially in the States, so a little bit of hope.”  The film shows a hardened reality, but not a cold one.  Patti Cake$ leaves you feeling that anything is possible with enough hope - pure and simple.


Patti Cake$ is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday, September 14th 

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