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Music Culture cheat sheet: Radha Blank, Joji, and more

Oct. 12, 2020
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Watch: Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020, dir. Kirsten Johnson)

Documentarian Kirsten Johnson, best known for 2016’s Cameraperson, deals with her father’s potential death by killing him off multiple times, with various novelty causes. An air conditioner falls on his head, he falls off the stairs, he gets hit by a construction worker carrying a large pole—Dick dies, then stands back up again every time. His stunt double checks up on him; the rest of the film crew pat his shoulder.

Johnson copes with the anxiety of death by cheating it again and again. She uses fiction and filmmaking to create a world she doesn’t want to be in just so she can leave it and go back to the real world, where her father remains alive and happy. Dick, her father, is more than game to play along—not just in the staged fatal accidents but in his daughter’s depiction of heaven, where he is reunited with his wife who died of Alzheimer’s years earlier. Dick is showing signs of absent-mindedness himself, although one thing remains clear—when asked why he agreed to do the film, he replied, “I’d do anything for [Kirsten].” 

One would think a movie with countless death scenes and one (fake) memorial service would carry more grief, but Dick Johnson Is Dead is a celebration, a defiance. Dick is struggling with old age, but he is living; he can still be with the people whose lives he’s touched over the years. Perhaps this experiment of a film isn’t an antagonization of death but a befriending of it, a coming to terms with it. The world has changed drastically since this premiered at Sundance last January, but we need this all the more now. “It would be so easy if loving only gave us the beautiful,” Johnson narrates. “But what loving demands is that we face the fear of losing each other. That when it gets messy, we hold each other close. And when we can, we defiantly celebrate our brief moments of joy.”

Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.

Watch: The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020, dir. Radha Blank)

Radha Blank knows a white audience is going to see her directorial debut, so she tells you exactly what she wants you to know. The Forty-Year-Old Version, a play on Judd Apatow’s The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, was shot in 35-millimeter black-and-white film and follows a soon-to-be-40 playwright trying (and failing) to navigate a theater scene whose only opening for her is in a Harriet Tubman musical. It was written by and stars Blank, and it won the directing competition at this year’s Sundance. It got picked up by Netflix immediately. Remember the name: Radha Blank.

While this film isn’t necessarily based on true events, it’s Blank all over—she uses her real name, her real apartment, and her real brother. Fictional Radha’s arc doesn’t veer too far away from real-life Radha, whose experience of discrimination and microaggressions ring true for other Black artists. In the film, she’s listed in the 30-under-30 for playwrights; in real life, she was accepted into the prestigious Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group. She had written 12 plays by the time the program closed, but no major company wanted to produce them. “I wouldn’t write the version of Black life that the gatekeepers value,” Blank told The New York Times. “I didn’t do poverty porn. I didn’t do war-torn Africa.”

In the film, a frustrated Radha gets into rapping, first about white men with big butts, then to poverty porn, then to bullshit plays that make white people feel good about gentrification. RadhaMUS Prime, her rapper alter ego, also exists in real life. She was writing a web series about this persona when her mother died; she scrapped the series, performed the rhymes around LA, and then rewrote them into a screenplay. 

The end result is a hilarious and truthful ode to self and a searing portrait of Black artistry in a so-called post-racism art world. It must be tremendously cathartic to finally get the recognition you deserve past the age of 40, with a film you wrote, directed, starred in, and based on your own life, but Blank is well-aware that what kept her from success had nothing to do with her talent. The film, after all, only fades into color once she becomes free to make art the way she wants to, without the notes of her white producer or the interpretation of her white director.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is streaming on Netflix.

Listen: Nectar by Joji

An artist should rightfully be judged based on their own merit, but Joji’s constant association with the worst type of guys (sad, indie, manipulative, you know the type) is more than enough for me not only to develop a dislike for his music, but an aversion.

Outside of already released singles “Gimme Love” and ”Run,” Nectar is incomprehensible, the songs bleeding into each other like an hour-long track with no peaks and valleys, just one monotonous stream of softboy white noise. My half-boyfriend and I listened to the album together and took turns overlaying the chorus of “Sanctuary” to the song’s own choruses, and it worked every time (try it). 

That said, I still think Joji is (objectively) a unique voice in music; he’s very hit-or-miss, but when he hits, he hits. Nectar is a mixed bag, overflowing with 18 tracks, all under four minutes. But it’s his most ambitious, with him executive-producing and arranging all songs. There’s a reason all those pretentious guys put his music on loop, and to be fair, Joji’s probably the most versatile of all the artists they revere and consequently ruin for everyone else.

Listen to Nectar on Spotify here.