Tuesday, 29 December 2020

The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) - Movie Review

Normally, this is the kind of title (not even the film itself, just the title) that would get on my nerves because, let’s be honest, trying to bank on the popularity of The 40-Year-Old Virgin is quite an odd choice, even in a year dominated by odd choices on both sides of the screen. And yet, I have no vitriol about this one as it’s quite fitting for the film it’s attached to. The whole point at the heart of the Judd Apatow film (and a lot of what he’d make afterwards) is that there’s no age limit on ‘growing up’ as we understand it; late-bloomer doesn’t just apply to people in their late-teens or even 20s. With the docu-drama vision writer/director/producer/star Radha Blank gives here, it’s certainly in that same spirit, and it shine because of it.

I’ll be honest, this whole premise of a woman pushing forty deciding that she wants to become a rapper immediately grabs my attention. Not just because it falls nicely into my hip-hop-centric wheelhouse, but also because, back when I tried my hand as a rapper (before coming to my senses that I didn’t know what the fuck I was even doing), I toyed with the idea of making a song about this very concept. I never wound up doing anything with it, but fucking hell, am I glad Radha did. It’s pretty cool seeing it given this much justice, with Radha playing a fictionalised version of herself, tapping into hip-hop’s ‘be true to yourself and your surroundings’ aesthetic to give what the title promises: The 40-year-old version of that kind of self-empowerment.

It helps that the film’s touchstones within the culture are very on-point, to the point that it highlights aspects that barely get any mainstream shine, like the female-only rap battle league Queen Of The Ring. On top of that, we got Radha’s passionate delivery and sharp writing, we got cuts from A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and even Queen Latifah, we got terrific beat work from Da Beatminers and Justus League regular Khrysis, not to mention some good beatbox work from Oswin Benjamin (who also plays producer D in the film proper); it’s all honey to my ears.

The more theatrical side of things is cool too, showing Radha trying to navigate her way through the theatre industry and how much it caters to the crusty old white set. There’s a reason why it took a musical about Alexander Hamilton to get this class of people to even gander in hip-hop’s direction. The sense of artistic compromise and heavy sighing at what Radha’s play Harlem Ave. eventually mutates into are quite palpable, added to by the historical context of how this is the reality of the culture in the mainstream: It started out to give a voice to the disenfranchised, but has since been turned into a free clinic for suburban families and the upper crust to get a hood transplant.

And yeah, with how many rap lyrics I’ve been slowing threading into these reviews over the past year, I get the hypocrisy of me pointing that shit out. Then again, hip-hop culture is one of the few things I take even more seriously than cinema as an art form, and the story that Radha is telling here is part of the reason why. At the end of the day, beyond the assembly line of the industry, hip-hop is about self-expression. About empowering the self. About owning the shit you’ve been through, are still going through, and what you’re likely to face in the days ahead.

Radha (in-film) wanted to tell the story of gentrification in Harlem (showing a bit of solidarity with fellow theatre-actor-cum-rapper Daveed Diggs), but instead, it turned into a chance for well-off white people to pat themselves on the back for ostensibly supporting the art of ‘other’ cultures, while the art itself only plays into their pre-existing class biases. Or, as Radha frequently mentions with invigorating catharsis, it’s poverty porn. I sure hope Ron Howard has his ears open.

As I’m writing out this review, I’m sitting here hoping that Radha Blank sticks around, because this is hip-hop cinema as it should be. It’s fresh, it respects the culture and its true potential, it acknowledges the societal forces that hinder it, and it wields it to tell its own story, its own perspective on the world, while freely flipping the bird to anyone who contributes to the commoditisation of it all.

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