DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The film "Patti Cake$" premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where it became an audience hit and was acquired for distribution by Fox Searchlight Pictures. It's the first feature written and directed by Geremy Jasper. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The title of the warmly exuberant new musical comedy "Patti Cake$" is one of the many aliases of Patricia Dombrowski, a hard-luck New Jersey bartender and aspiring rapper played by the splendid Australian newcomer Danielle Macdonald. Patti's best friend, Jheri, played by Siddharth Dhananjay, calls her Killa P. Around the neighborhood she's known as Dumbo, a cruel riff on Dombrowski. One especially nasty type, mocking her large frame, calls her white Precious in reference to the 2009 drama starring Gabourey Sidibe as a girl who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her mother.
Patti's mom, Barb, isn't anywhere near as cruel or monstrous, just drunk and irresponsible. Most evenings she storms into the karaoke bar where her daughter works, downs several shots and sings a lovely quavering solo, only to end the night with her head over a toilet. Played in a blistering sweet-and-sour performance by the New York cabaret legend Bridget Everett, Barb once longed to be a singer. But she disdains Patti's dreams of stardom, claiming that rap isn't really music anyway.
Patti herself may not be much of a musician, but there's no doubting she's a natural born poet. Whether she's improvising some lines in a parking lot with Jheri or defeating a local bully in an outdoor hip-hop battle, she proves herself a terrific wordsmith, a master at synthesizing tough-talking slang, pop cultural references and no shortage of expletives into an exhilarating stream of rhyming verse.
Few of her lyrics can be repeated on the air, though we can play an excerpt from a scene in which Patti drops by the pharmacy where Jheri works and the two of them take advantage of the store's PA system, not for the first time.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PATTI CAKE$")
SIDDHARTH DHANANJAY: (As Jheri) Lord and ladies of the royal court, bow down. The queen is in the building. Introducing Ms. Patricia Dombrowski, aka Patti Cake$, aka White Trish, aka Juicy Luciano, aka Marilyn Mansion, aka Jane Dough, aka Killa P.
DANIELLE MACDONALD: (As Patricia Dombrowski) And introducing the ladies' twist, the voice that gets you [expletive]. It's going to be an Indian summer, y'all. Mr. Jheri Curls, aka Young Stamos, aka Deepak Shakur, aka the Dorag DaVinci, aka Rawdog Zillionaire, aka the (unintelligible). Boys and girls, I give you my soul mate, my homie-o (ph), it's Jheromeo.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) This isn't "Showtime At The Apollo," OK? You have customers here. Play make-believe on your lunch break.
DHANANJAY: (As Jheri) Sorry, my bad.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Last warning, Harish (ph).
CHANG: Patti and Jheri's jam sessions are the beginning of something potentially epic. And the juices really get flowing once they meet a mysterious goth loner with the memorable name of Basterd The Antichrist, played by Mamoudou Athie. Basterd is a punk rocker, but his rage-fueled performances hide a gentle, tender soul, and he reluctantly agrees to lay down some beats for an album. Also getting in on the action is Patti's wheelchair-bound Nana, played by Cathy Moriarty of "Raging Bull" fame, whose raspy line delivery becomes a pretty killer hook. The band is called PBNJ, an acronym of everyone's first initials that also happens to sum up the appeal of "Patti Cake$." It's sweet and messy and a little square around the edges, but it's also pretty irresistible.
The movie was written and directed by Geremy Jasper, a New Jersey musician making his feature film debut. He also worked with composer Jeremy Binnick (ph) on the film's score and wrote an album's worth of songs for the soundtrack, ranging from the impromptu raps that Patti spits out every morning to the fiery love song that Barb once performed years ago under the stage name Barb Wire. "Patti Cake$" is a canny mix of slickness and grit, a Cinderella story in dirty Jersey drag.
It's about an honest, hardworking girl who rises above her dead-end existence with the help of some supportive friends, a bit of romance and, above all, her own irrepressible, overflowing talent. There's hardly a single star-is-born, let's-put-on-a-show cliche that the movie leaves untouched. But the music is so high-spirited and the actors throw themselves into their parts with such gusto that you always feel those cliches are being wholeheartedly embraced rather than exploited.
In telling a story about a fictional white rapper, "Patti Cake$" is likely to generate questions and accusations of cultural appropriation in a movie industry that, the occasional "Straight Outta Compton" aside, doesn't often give black artists their proper due. The fact that Macdonald had never rapped before taking on the role of Patti may well be wielded as a criticism rather than hailed as evidence of the actress' astonishing talent.
The movie is self-aware enough to acknowledge the issue in one key scene in which Patti gets dismissed by a black rap star as a culture vulture. But Jasper never makes undue claims for his heroine or tries to pump her up into someone she isn't. When Patti steps up to the mic and lets loose with her sensational gift, the voice we hear is hers and hers alone.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at the Los Angeles Times. On Monday's show, how a young Winston Churchill earned distinction and tested his mettle in war.
CANDICE MILLARD: He wanted to be in the most difficult, most dangerous battles he could find. And he wanted to be noticed. He wanted to stand out.
BIANCULLI: We speak with Candice Millard about her new book, "Hero Of The Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape And The Making Of Winston Churchill." Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BEASLEY'S "I MEAN YOU")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BEASLEY'S "I MEAN YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.