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Review: Patti Cake$ (2017)

Patti Cake$ (2017)

Directed by: Geremy Jasper

Premise: A young woman (Danielle Macdonald) living in New Jersey struggles to get by while nursing the dream of becoming a rapper. New opportunities emerge when she meets an eccentric musical prodigy (Mamoudou Athie) and they produce a single.

What Works: Patti Cake$ is an impressive piece of musical filmmaking. This is a musical in the same way that The Doors and 8 Mile are musical movies and Patti Cake$ is as good or better than any music-driven motion picture released in the past few years. And much of that has to do with the music. This film has some terrific songs and they are melded to the drama. The story is about a young woman who comes into herself creatively and the musical performances are directly tied to her growth. Early songs like “PBNJ” have a sound that is distinctly different from the later work and the climaxing performance of “Tuff Love” draws together elements of Patti’s life into a personal artistic work. Patti Cake$ is about people living on the margins of society and it captures them and their life in a way that is full of color and authenticity. The film is shot in a mostly gritty style but it occasionally includes surreal elements that visualize music’s capacity to transport the listener to a different state of consciousness and the way rap music in particular voices the materialistic day dreams of people living in poverty. Patti Cake$ has an authentic sense of place. The story is set in New Jersey and it has an east coast flavor but the film is especially authentic in the intimate moments between the characters. The film has a slate of terrific performances in which the actors bring to life complex people. Patti Cake$ is led by Danielle Macdonald as Patti. The part calls upon Macdonald to do a lot from comedy to drama to romance to music and she does it all. Patti lives with her mother, played by Bridget Everett, and grandmother, played by Cathy Moriarty. Patti has complex relationships with these women, especially her mother. She could be a simple antagonist but Everett and the script make the mother much more than that. The cast also includes Mamoudou Athie as a vagrant musical prodigy who forms a band with Patti. Athie’s character begins as a recluse and the way he emerges over the course of the movie and opens up to Patti gives the movie a relational storyline that’s very appealing.

What Doesn’t: Patti Cake$ is a getting-the-band-together story and it follows the formula exactly. A starving musician struggles to make her art and pay the bills, facing self-doubt and the derision of others, and she makes creative alliances that lead to artistic breakthroughs only to be derailed by personal conflicts that must be resolved if she is to live out her dream. Anyone who has seen a movie like this will probably figure out exactly where Patti Cake$ is going. The vivid characters, great songs, and unusual cinematic techniques distinguish this movie. It is an excellent example of this genre but most viewers will be able to map out the story by the end of the first act. One of the ideas running throughout Patti Cake$ is the role of race in rap music. Patti is a white woman and other characters, white and black, regularly remind her of that fact. Their criticism is that, as a white woman, Patti has no business rapping. The film implicitly suggests that rap is the music of poverty in America and she comes to it authentically because of her background. The movie doesn’t do much with that and at a time in which there is a lot of consternation about so-called “cultural appropriation” the filmmakers pass up an opportunity to examine that.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, music videos, and an image gallery.

Bottom Line: Patti Cake$ is an excellent musical story. It adheres to formula but it does that formula very well and combines engaging characters with some great tunes and cinematic style.

Episode: #681 (January 14, 2018)