Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Socalled Movie profiles artist taking Jewish music in new directions

(This review is from the June 14 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.)
As a teenager growing up in Ottawa and Chelsea in the 1990s, Josh Dolgin got into hip hop and rapping and adopted ‘Heavy J’ as his rap name. It was, it seems, somewhat of a misnomer. He wasn’t a person of excessive poundage and, apparently, his music in those days was not something you’d describe as “heavy.” In response, a fellow rapper took to calling him ‘Socalled Heavy J.’

The original ‘Heavy J’ eventually fell away and ‘Socalled’ he’s remained.

By the late-‘90s, Socalled had begun mixing klezmer and other forms of Jewish music with the beats and samples techniques of contemporary urban hip hop to create a unique, compelling and utterly original fusion. While generally remaining respectful of the traditions of Jewish music, he’s taken it in directions it’s never gone before.

Several years ago, Socalled, now based in Montreal, caught the attention of documentary film director Garry Beitel, whose works include Chez Schwartz, about the legendary Montreal smoked meat joint, Bonjour! Shalom! – which explores the relationships and tensions between the Chassidic and French Canadian communities in the Montreal area of Outremont – and Endnotes, about a palliative care unit. Over a couple of years, Beitel and his crew sporadically followed Socalled at home, on tour in Europe and the U.S., and on a klezmer cruise organized by the Dolgin family in 2007 along the Dnieper River in Eastern Europe. The result is The Socalled Movie, a documentary that explores Socalled, his creative process, and his seemingly disparate collaborations in a series of 18 vignettes.

The most joyous parts of the film are the frequently infectious performance sequences. Whether Socalled is leading his own band, which includes bluegrass and folk singer Katie Moore, and occasionally musicians like Matt Darriau of the Klezmatics, or participating in a unique collaboration like his musical summit with legendary funk trombonist Fred Wesley and klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, one can’t helped but be caught up in the music.

The film also reveals Socalled – like many creative people – to be conflicted and, sometimes, contradictory. In one interview segment he says that his fascination with Jewish music comes from his respect for Jewish culture despite the fact that he has nothing but contempt for religious beliefs and traditions. But, in another segment, he looks at an old siddur seemingly with reverence for what it represents. He dismisses Holocaust-education trips like March of the Living, but is deeply affected on the klezmer cruise when he visits the site of a Jewish massacre during the Holocaust. Socalled also talks openly about being gay – and even celebrates his sexuality with a concert at a Montreal porno palace that was a Yiddish theatre back in the 1930s and ‘40s – but will not reveal the identity of his partner or the nature of their relationship.

One thing about Socalled that I found particularly interesting is that while his main form of musical expression is hip hop, a genre that is often, and perhaps unfairly, seen as rejecting of older genres of music, and the musicians that made it, he seeks out older musical heroes to work with. In addition to Wesley, who was playing with soul legend James Brown long before Socalled was born, we see Socalled in poignant scenes with Irving Fields, a Jewish lounge musician now in his 90s, and Arkady Gendler, an older singer of traditional Yiddish songs who was a guide on the klezmer cruise down the Dnieper. At the same time, he’s also collaborating with contemporary hip hoppers like C-Rays Walz and D-Shade, and composing a solo piece for classical cellist Matt Haimovitz.

The Socalled Movie is a fascinating look at an artist who I suspect will continue to develop in interesting ways in years to come.

The Socalled Movie, co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada and reFrame Films, will be screened in Ottawa at the Mayfair Theatre, 1074 Bank Street, on June 18, 21 and 23 at 9:30 pm.

--Mike Regenstreif

1 comment:

  1. Mike: Excellent, perceptive review. I was at the premiere a week ago at the incredibly aptly chosen Ukrainian Federation Hall - once a synagogue. You totally nailed the experience of watching the film and being immersed in Socalled's world. - antoine